Products covered in this section
This section covers household disinfectants and antiseptics, which usually contain one or more of these chemicals:
- cationic detergents such as benzalkonium, cetrimide, cetylpyridinium, chlorhexidine,
- hydrogen peroxide,
- phenol, cresol, chlorocresol, chloroxylenol, or tar acids,
- pine oil,
Disinfectants and antiseptics used in hospitals or workplaces such as farms, factories and dairies may contain other chemicals.
Disinfectants and antiseptics destroy germs and are widely used in the home. Disinfectants are used to clean places and objects, antiseptics are used to clean skin and wounds.
How they cause harm
Ethanol causes unconsciousness and affects breathing; cationic detergents burn the inside of the mouth and throat and affect muscles; hydrogen peroxide is irritant; phenol is corrosive and affects the brain, breathing, heart, liver and kidneys. These chemicals are poisonous if swallowed. Phenol can also cause poisoning if absorbed through the skin.
How poisonous they are
Disinfectants and antiseptics for use in the home do not usually cause serious harm if a small amount is swallowed. Large amounts may cause serious poisoning and possibly death. Disinfectants and antiseptics for use in workplaces are more likely to cause severe poisoning than those for use in the home. They usually contain greater concentrations of chemical and may contain other chemicals more harmful than those listed above. Disinfectants containing a high concentration of phenol may cause poisoning if large amounts are spilt on the skin.
Signs and symptoms
* If swallowed:
- nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea,
- irritation in mouth and throat.
If the product contains cationic detergent:
- burns to mouth, throat and gullet,
- muscle weakness,
- the patient cannot breathe,
- low blood pressure,
- lung oedema.
If the product contains ethanol:
- low body temperature,
- shallow breathing.
If the product contains hydrogen peroxide:
- nausea, vomiting and belly pain,
- burns in the mouth and throat.
If the product contains phenol:
- there may be burns in the mouth and throat,
- fast breathing,
- weak irregular pulse,
- low blood pressure,
- dark urine,
- signs of liver and kidney damage.
* In the eyes:
- redness and watering,
- stinging or burning,
- there may be burns to the eye.
* On the skin:
- redness and irritation,
- concentrated products may cause burns,
- products containing large amounts of phenol may cause fits, fast breathing and unconsciousness.
What to do
Give first aid.
If the disinfectant was made for use in the home, and if the patient has swallowed only a small amount, the only effects are likely to be nausea and vomiting. The patient will recover quickly, and does not need to go to hospital. Give milk to drink.
If the patient stops breathing, open the airway, wipe chemical off the patient's lips, then give mouth-to-mouth or mouth-to-nose respiration.
If the patient is unconscious or drowsy, lay him or her on one side in the recovery position, check breathing every 10 minutes and keep the patient warm and quiet.
If the patient has a fit, treat as recommended in chapter five.
Take the patient to hospital as quickly as possible in the following cases:
- the patient has swallowed a large amount of disinfectant;
- the patient has swallowed a product made for use in hospital or industry;
- the patient has signs and symptoms of poisoning.
In the eyes
Wash the eyes for at least 15-20 minutes with water. Take the patient to hospital as quickly as possible if there seems to be injury to the eye.
On the skin
Remove contaminated clothes, shoes, socks and jewellery. Wash the skin thoroughly with soap and cold water, if possible using running water. Take the patient to hospital as quickly as possible if there are skin burns or signs and symptoms of poisoning.
What to do if there is a delay in getting to hospital
If the chemical was swallowed: if the patient is fully awake give a cup of milk or water to drink. Do not make the patient vomit, as the disinfectant may burn the throat.
Information for doctors outside hospital
Monitor breathing, pulse and blood pressure. Supportive care should be given as needed including oxygen. The patient may need mechanical ventilation.
See also the sections on soap and detergents, ethanol and isopropano, phenol and related substances and volatile oils, if the product contains these chemicals.