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Refrigerant poisoning


Definition:

A refrigerant is a chemical that makes things cold. This article discusses poisoning from sniffing or swallowing such chemicals.

The most common poisoning occurs when people intentionally sniff a type of refrigerant called freon.

This is for information only and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Alternative Names:

Coolant poisoning; Freon poisoning; Fluorinated hydrocarbon poisoning; Sudden sniffing death syndrome

Poisonous Ingredient:
  • Fluorinated hydrocarbons
Where Found:
  • Various refrigerants
  • Some fumigants

Note: This list may not be all-inclusive.

Symptoms:
  • Lungs
  • Eyes, ears, nose, and throat
    • Severe pain in the throat
    • Severe pain or burning in the nose, eyes, ears, lips, or tongue
    • Loss of vision
  • Stomach and intestines
    • Severe abdominal pain
    • Vomiting
    • Burns of the esophagus (food pipe)
    • Vomiting blood
    • Blood in the stool
  • Heart and blood
    • Irregular heart rhythms
    • Collapse
  • Skin
    • Irritation
    • Burn
    • Necrosis (holes) in the skin or underlying tissues

Note: Most symptoms result from breathing in the substance.

Home Treatment:

Seek immediate emergency medical care. Move the person to fresh air. Be careful to avoid being overcome with the fumes while helping someone else.

Contact poison control for further information.

Before Calling Emergency:

Determine the following information:

  • The patient's age, weight, and condition
  • The name of the product (ingredients and strengths, if known)
  • The time it was swallowed or inhaled
  • The amount swallowed or inhaled
Poison Control, or a local emergency number:

The National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. 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.

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

See: Poison control center - emergency number

What to expect at the emergency room:

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

  • Fluids by IV
  • Medicines to treat symptoms
  • Tube through the mouth into the stomach to wash out the stomach (gastric lavage)
  • Endoscopy -- camera down the throat to see burns in the esophagus and the stomach
  • Medicine (antidote) to reverse the effect of the poison
  • Irrigation (washing of the skin), perhaps every few hours for several days
  • Skin debridement (surgical removal of burned skin)
  • Breathing tube
  • Oxygen
Expectations (prognosis):

How well a patient does depends on the severity of the poisoning and how quickly medical help was received.

Severe lung damage may occur. Survival past 72 hours usually means the patient will have a complete recovery.

Sniffing freon is extremely dangerous and can lead to long-term brain damage and sudden death.

References:

Wax PM, Beuhler MB. Hydrocarbons and volatile substances. In: Tintinalli JE, Kelen GD, Stapczynski JS, Ma OJ, Cline DM, eds. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide. 6th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2004:chap 180.


Review Date: 12/15/2011
Reviewed By: Eric Perez, MD, St. Luke's / Roosevelt Hospital Center, NY, NY, and Pegasus Emergency Group (Meadowlands and Hunterdon Medical Centers), NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. Copyright 2002 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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