Products that can cause soap poisoning range from simple soaps to products containing a chemical called amine oxide. If these products are inhaled or swallowed, they can be highly toxic and even fatal.
If someone suspects that a person has been exposed to harmful chemicals and poisoned, they should call emergency medical services immediately or call their country's National Poison Control Center (NPCC) as soon as possible. In the United States, the number to call is 1-800-222-1222.
Symptoms will vary depending on a number of factors. Symptoms can include stomach pain, vomiting, and a drop in blood pressure.
The signs or symptoms of soap poisoning will depend on:
- the product
- how much a person has swallowed or inhaled
- how much contact there was with the product
Symptoms of soap poisoning may include:
- difficulty breathing
- swelling of the throat, lips, and tongue
- chemical burns on the skin
- vision loss, if the soap product has burned the eyes
- gastrointestinal symptoms, including vomiting repeatedly or with blood
- burns to the food pipe
- severe stomach pain
- low blood pressure
What to do in an emergency
If an adult or child has swallowed a soap product, the first thing to do is call the NPCC. This service is free and confidential and offers expert advice and immediate support. It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Once someone makes a call to the NPCC, a specialist will work with the caller on how to proceed. The specialist may advise going to the nearest emergency room or calling 911.
The NPCC and medical professionals need to know the type and amount of the soap product that caused the poisoning.
Vomiting should not be encouraged unless instructed by poison control or a medical professional. The NPCC may recommend drinking water or milk, but not for anyone who is vomiting, having a seizure, or experiencing any symptoms that make it hard to swallow.
When to call a doctor
Accidental poisoning by soap products is a risk with a broad range of different products, from laundry detergent to hand soap.
It is a good idea to seek out medical help if someone:
- has swallowed more than a mouthful of soap product
- is having symptoms of poisoning
- is uncertain about what they have swallowed
Hand and body soaps are minimally poisonous in small amounts, but they may cause symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, and loose stools. People experiencing persistent symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea should go to the emergency room.
If someone has only consumed a small amount of soap, they should drink a few sips of water and see if any symptoms appear.
Any soap product that is not intended for cleaning the human body is poisonous if consumed. If someone has consumed a cleaning soap, it's important to get immediate medical attention for that person. The same applies to products that have gotten on the skin or in the eyes.
The treatment for soap poisoning depends on the chemical in the product.
Treatment for soap poisoning may include:
- oxygen or a breathing tube
- pain medication
- giving fluids through the veins (IV)
- treatment of any burned skin
- washing the affected area
- checking the lungs and airways with an instrument called a bronchoscope
- checking the food pipe and stomach with an instrument called an endoscope
Poisoning can severely affect a person's health. It is important to get immediate treatment to prevent severe complications, including brain damage, organ damage, or significant tissue death.
In most cases, the outlook for someone who has been poisoned by a soap product is good. Recovery will depend on the product, the degree of exposure, and how quickly medical help and treatment arrived. The sooner that someone gets help for soap poisoning, the greater chance they have for recovering fully.
Poisoning by soap products that come into contact with the skin often has a short recovery time compared with other forms of poisoning.
If someone has swallowed a soap product, recovery will depend on how much internal damage has occurred. Damage to the stomach or food pipe could take weeks or months to heal and has a potential for long-term complications.
Children under the age of 5 are at particular risk of accidental soap poisoning, especially from everyday household cleaning products.
In 2014, the NPCC reported that their call centers received nearly 2.2 million calls.
Among all age groups, 79.4 percent of exposures reported were unintentional, 16.8 were intentional, and 2.4 percent were adverse reactions to food, drugs, or other substances.
For children under 6 years old, 99.3 percent of instances of exposure to all poisons were accidental. Only 36.9 percent of teen exposures and about 61 percent of adult exposures were unintentional.
According to a 2014 report from the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), children under 5 years old accounted for about 47 percent of total exposures to poisons.
They also reported that household cleaning soaps are among the top five most common exposures for children age 5 or under, accounting for about 11 percent of poisonings.
The good news is most of the soap exposures were not poisonous, minimally poisonous, or only had minor effects.
Risk factors for accidental soap poisoning
When an adult experiences accidental poisoning while cleaning at home or work, it is often because they do not follow proper product use instructions. Children have a much higher risk of poisoning by soap products, however, as they are more likely to drink or eat toxic products because they are unaware of the danger in doing so.
Prolonged exposure to household cleaning soaps can also lead to accidental poisoning. People may not consider the strength of products they are using, fail to open windows for ventilation and end up breathing in chemical fumes.
Children under 6 may mistake brightly colored liquids for drinks or solid soap products for candy. Children commonly ingest products such as:
- dishwashing detergents
- colognes and perfumes
- toilet cleaners
- fabric softeners
- simple liquid soaps
The NPCC receives hundreds of calls yearly about children biting into laundry detergent pods. These pods contain a highly concentrated amount of detergent and are very poisonous.
The liquid inside the pods can cause vomiting, wheezing, gasping, rashes, and severe drowsiness in children. Some of the breathing problems associated with these pods are serious enough to require the assistance of a ventilator. People have also reported eye injuries when the detergent gets in a child's eyes.
One study has shown that 76 percent of children had poisoning symptoms after ingesting liquid pods, compared to only 27 percent with other laundry detergent formulations.
Poison control officials urge parents always to keep laundry detergents closed and stored out of reach of children.
It is important to be careful when using and storing soap products, especially those used for cleaning.
Windows should be open when cleaning, and it is important for people to take breaks to avoid spending long periods of time using a cleaning product.
Soaps, detergents, and cleaning products should be locked up out of the reach of children, as many of these products are attractive to children. They are also very dangerous.
It is essential to put soaps and cleaners away after cleaning. Accidents happen when adults forget to put cleaning products away, and children reach for them. It is also a good idea to rinse out bottles and packages when are they are empty before putting them in the trash.