Varnish is a clear liquid that is used as coating on woodwork and other products. Varnish poisoning occurs when someone swallows varnish. It is a member of a class of compounds known as hydrocarbons. Exposure to hydrocarbons, both intentional and unintentional, is a common problem, resulting in thousands of calls to poison control centers every year.
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.
Varnish contains both resins and solvents.
The harmful substances in the resins are:
The harmful substances in the solvents are:
Some varnishes contain these substances.
Below are symptoms of varnish poisoning in different parts of the body.
EYES, EARS, NOSE, AND THROAT
KIDNEYS AND BLADDER
LUNGS AND AIRWAYS
HEART AND BLOOD
STOMACH AND INTESTINES
Seek medical help right away. DO NOT make the person throw up unless poison control or a health care provider tells you to. If the varnish is on the skin or in the eyes, flush with lots of water for at least 15 minutes.
If the person swallowed the varnish, give them water or milk right away, unless a provider tells you not to. DO NOT give anything to drink if the person has symptoms that make it hard to swallow. These include vomiting, convulsions, or a decreased level of alertness. If the person breathed in varnish fumes, move them to fresh air right away.
Before Calling Emergency
Have this information ready:
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. This 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.
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. Symptoms will be treated.
The person may receive:
How well someone does depends on how much varnish they swallowed and how quickly they receive treatment. The faster medical help is given, the better the chance for recovery. Varnish can cause extensive damage in the:
The outcome depends on the extent of this damage.
Delayed injury may occur, including a hole forming in the throat, esophagus, or stomach. This can lead to severe bleeding and infection. Surgical procedures may be needed to treat these complications.
If varnish gets in the eye, ulcers may develop in the cornea, the clear part of the eye. This can cause blindness.
Kostic MA. Poisoning. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St. Geme JW, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 63.
Wang GS, Buchanan JA. Hydrocarbons. In: Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2018:chap 152.
Zosel AE. General approach to the poisoned patient. In: Adams JG, ed. Emergency Medicine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:chap 143.
Review Date: 10/3/2017
Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Emeritus, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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