Antifreeze poisoning

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Definition

Antifreeze is a liquid used to cool engines. It is also called engine coolant. This article discusses poisoning caused by swallowing antifreeze.

This article is for information only. DO NOT use it to treat or manage an actual poison exposure. If you or someone you are with has an exposure, call your local emergency number (such as 911), or your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States.

Alternative Names

Engine coolant poisoning

Poisonous Ingredient

The poisonous ingredients in antifreeze are:

  • Ethylene glycol
  • Methanol
  • Propylene glycol

Where Found

The above ingredients are found in various antifreezes. They may also be used in other products.

Symptoms

Below are symptoms of antifreeze poisoning in different parts of the body.

AIRWAYS AND LUNGS

BLADDER AND KIDNEYS

EYES, EARS, NOSE, AND THROAT

HEART AND BLOOD

MUSCLES AND JOINTS

NERVOUS SYSTEM

SKIN

STOMACH AND GASTROINTESTINAL TRACT

  • Nausea and vomiting

Home Care

Seek medical help right away. DO NOT make a person throw up unless poison control or a health care provider tells you to.

Use standard first aid and CPR for signs of shock or no heartbeat (cardiac arrest). Call your local poison control center or 911 for more help.

Before Calling Emergency

Have this information ready:

  • Person's age, weight, and condition
  • Name of product (as well as the ingredients, if known)
  • Time it was swallowed
  • Amount swallowed

Poison Control

Your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States. They will give you further instructions.

This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

What to Expect at the Emergency Room

Take the container with you to the hospital, if possible.

The provider will measure and monitor the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. The person may receive:

  • Blood and urine tests
  • Breathing support, including oxygen, tube through the mouth into the throat, and breathing machine
  • Chest x-ray
  • CT scan (advanced brain imaging)
  • ECG (electrocardiogram or heart tracing)
  • Intravenous fluids (through a vein)
  • Medicines to reverse the effects of the poison
  • Tube placed down the nose and into the stomach (sometimes)

Dialysis (kidney machine) treatment may be needed during recovery. This need may be permanent if kidney damage is severe.

Outlook (Prognosis)

For ethylene glycol: Death may occur within the first 24 hours. If the patient survives, there may be little or no urine output for several weeks before the kidneys recover. Any brain damage may be permanent. Vision loss or blindness may also be permanent.

For methanol: Methanol is extremely toxic. As little as 2 tablespoons (1 ounce or 30 milliliters) can kill a child, and 4 to 16 tablespoons (2 to 8 ounces or 60 to 240 milliliters) can be deadly for an adult. The outcome depends on how much was swallowed and how soon appropriate care was given.

Permanent damage to the nervous system may occur. This can cause blindness, decreased mental functioning, and a condition similar to Parkinson disease.

Keep all chemicals, cleaners, and industrial products in their original containers and marked as poison, and out of the reach of children. This will reduce the risk of poisoning and overdose.

References

Nelson ME. Toxic alcohols. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 141.

Thomas SHL, White J. Poisoning. In: Walker BR, Colledge NR, Ralston SH, Penman ID, eds. Davidson's Principles and Practice of Medicine. 22nd ed. Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2014:chap 9.

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