Potassium carbonate is a white powder used to make soap, glass, and other items. This article discusses poisoning from swallowing or breathing in potassium carbonate.
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 a local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.
Potassium carbonate is found in:
Some dishwasher soaps
Some forms of potash (material from wood ashes that is used in fertilizers)
Some home permanent-wave solutions
Some soft soaps
Note: This list may not be all inclusive.
Symptoms of potassium carbonate poisoning include:
Abdominal pain - severe
Burns in the mouth and throat
Mouth pain - severe
Rapid drop in blood pressure (shock)
Throat pain - severe
Throat swelling, which leads to difficulty breathing
Vomiting, often bloody
Symptoms from getting potassium carbonate on the skin or in the eyes include:
Seek immediate medical help. DO NOT make a person throw up unless told to do so by Poison Control or a health care professional.
If the chemical is on the skin or in the eyes, flush with lots of water for at least 15 minutes.
If the chemical was swallowed, immediately give the person water or milk, unless instructed otherwise by a health care provider. DO NOT give water or milk if the person is having symptoms (such as vomiting, convulsions, or a decreased level of alertness) that make it hard to swallow.
Before Calling Emergency
The following information is helpful for emergency assistance:
The person's age, weight, and condition
The name of the product (ingredients and strengths, if known)
The time it was swallowed
The amount swallowed
However, DO NOT delay calling for help if this information is not immediately available.
In the United States, call 1-800-222-1222 to speak with a local poison control center. This hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.
This is a free and confidential service. 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
The health care provider will measure and monitor the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Symptoms will be treated as appropriate. The person may receive:
Airway support, including oxygen, breathing tube through the mouth (intubation), and breathing machine (ventilator)
Blood and urine test
Camera down the throat (endoscopy) to see burns in the food pipe (esophagus) and stomach
Computed tomography (CT) or advanced imaging scan
EKG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
Fluids through a vein (intravenous or IV)
Medicines to treat symptoms
For skin exposure, treatment may include:
Surgical removal of burned skin (debridement)
Transfer to a hospital that specializes in burn care
Washing of the skin (irrigation), possibly every few hours for several days
The person may need to be admitted to a hospital for more treatment. Surgery may be needed if the esophagus, stomach, or intestine have developed holes (perforation) from exposure to the acid.
How well a person does depends on the amount of poison swallowed and how quickly treatment was received. The faster a person gets medical help, the better the chance for recovery.
Swallowing poisons can have severe effects on many parts of the body. Damage to the esophagus and stomach continues to occur for several weeks after the potassium hydroxide was swallowed. Death from complications may occur up to several months later. Holes (perforation) in the esophagus and stomach may cause serious infections in both the chest and abdominal cavities, which may result in death.
Wax PM, Young A. Caustics. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 153.
Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.