What to do when someone ingests antifreeze
Antifreeze, also known as ethylene glycol, is a chemical used most commonly as an engine coolant. It is a shimmery, green or golden fluid, and some report that it is sweet tasting. When ingested, it is deadly and starts with central nervous system effects, lightheadedness, dizziness, etc. Then gastrointestinal (GI) effects start, and ultimately if left unchecked, it will affect the kidneys rather quickly. It is important that you seek medical attention as soon as possible after exposure or ingestion. Within 24 to 72 hours of ingestion, the kidneys can go into complete renal failure, potentially requiring hemodialysis, from which you may not recover.
- consider the route of exposure
- go to the emergency room immediately
- call your local poison control center
- take notes on the patient
- induce vomiting
- leave hazardous chemicals in areas where children or pets may accidentally get into them
- waste time
Do consider the route of exposure
Skin: Antifreeze can irritate the skin’s surface, but with rinsing and washing, it should present no major problems.
Eyes: Antifreeze causes irritation, redness, and burning of the eyes. In some instances, if not treated quickly enough, it can cause chemical burns and affect the surface of the eye. Prompt flushing with cool water and immediate medical attention are important.
Ingestion/swallowing: This is the worst type of exposure. The chemical can cause irritation to the gastrointestinal tract, and once absorbed can quickly affect the central nervous system, as well as the kidneys and other organs. Seek medical attention immediately so that fomepizole or ethanol can be used as antidotes to counter the ingestion and prevent worsening problems. These help prevent the breakdown of the ethylene glycol to its more toxic metabolites and allows it to be cleared from the body more readily but is given under the supervision of a medical professional in a hospital setting.
Do go to the emergency room immediately
Even if you’re unsure of the type of chemical or what the exposure was, get the patient to the emergency room immediately. It is often helpful to either take a picture of the bottle with your cell phone, or bring the empty bottle to the ER so the physicians know exactly what the patient ingested. The patient will be monitored, and receive appropriate medications. In many cases, the patient will receive IV fluids to help rid the body of the chemical and protect the kidneys as well.
Do call your local poison control center
If your eyes or skin are affected by antifreeze, call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 anywhere in the United States for information on appropriate treatment and first aid for chemical exposure to antifreeze. If the antifreeze was ingested, go to the emergency room immediately, and call the Poison Control Center on the way to the hospital.
Do take notes on the patient
The medical team treating the patient will need as much information as possible on both the patient and the substance they ingested. Write down the estimated amount the patient ingested, as well as the height and weight of the patient. This doesn’t mean that you have to bring the hazardous material with you to the hospital, but you can take a picture of the bottle with your cell phone. Some chemicals have labels with instructions on what to do in the event of accidental exposure or ingestion.
Do not panic
Remain calm in the event of antifreeze ingestion. If you are panicking, take a few deep breaths. Ask questions and find out what happened, making sure to gather as much information as you can about the amount of antifreeze ingested, the person who ingested it, and remember to take a photo or bring the bottle with you to the emergency room.
Do not induce vomiting
Some chemicals cause repeat injury and irritation with a return trip up the esophagus via vomiting. Get to the emergency room as soon as possible and have the stomach contents evacuated with a tube inserted into the stomach, called nasogastric suction.
Do not leave hazardous chemicals in areas where children or pets may accidentally get into them
Like other harmful chemicals, it is best to keep antifreeze safely locked away and out of reach of children, as well as household pets. To store antifreeze properly, keep in a sealed and closed container in an area that is not subject to weather and has limited access.
Do not waste time
Time is of the essence with antifreeze ingestion, as ethylene glycol is absorbed quickly by the body, and treatments are more effective the sooner they are administered by medical professionals. Delaying treatment for antifreeze ingestion can lead to serious complications, including GI irritation and damage, respiratory difficulty, kidney failure, and in some cases, death.
Antifreeze is a dangerous chemical, and if ingested, can cause a number of problems, even death. It’s important to keep it out of reach of children and pets, and knowing how to respond quickly is important to preventing bad outcomes.