What are caustic ingestions?

Updated: Dec 09, 2020
  • Author: Derrick Lung, MD, MPH, FACEP, FACMT; Chief Editor: David Vearrier, MD, MPH  more...
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Caustics and corrosives cause tissue injury by a chemical reaction. The vast majority of caustic chemicals are acidic or alkaline substances that damage tissue by accepting a proton (alkaline substance) or donating a proton (acidic substance) in an aqueous solution. [1]

The pH of a chemical is a measure of how easily the chemical accepts or donates a proton. This relates to the strength of the acidic or alkaline substance, and provides some, but not precise, correlation with the likelihood of injury. Substances with a pH less than 2 are considered to be strong acids; those with a pH greater than 12 are considered to be strong bases.

The severity of tissue injury from acidic and alkaline substances is determined by the duration of contact; the amount and state (liquid, solid) of the substance involved; and the substance's physical properties, such as its pH, concentration, ability to penetrate tissue, and its titratable reserve. The latter reflects the amount of tissue required to neutralize a given amount of the involved substance and is particularly useful for measuring the amount of damage that can be caused by caustics, such as phenol, that have a near-neutral pH.

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