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Slippery and Dangerous: Household Hydrocarbons

Baby oil and household lubricating oil are hydrocarbons. These slippery liquids can easily go down the wrong way, into the lungs, when someone swallows them. Other hydrocarbons include lamp oil, torch fuel, lighter fluid, gasoline, kerosene, motor oil, heating oil, hair oil, and some kinds of furniture polish.

The poison center received recent calls about toddlers who drank baby oil or lubricating oil. Each child had to be observed very carefully for signs of aspiration, that is, hydrocarbons going down into their lungs. 

Coughing, choking, and fever are common signs of hydrocarbon aspiration. Lung irritation and pneumonia, even death, can result. Symptoms can happen quickly – within a couple of hours or even sooner. If there are no symptoms in 24 hours, the child should remain fine. 

Prevention is very important, because aspirating a hydrocarbon is so dangerous. Always re-close the child resistant caps. Lock oils and other hydrocarbons out of children’s reach – even bottles of baby oil! Don’t put these products down and turn your back, even for a second. It takes only a second for a child to grab the bottle and take a drink. 

If someone tries to swallow oil or another hydrocarbon, call the poison center right away at 1-800-222-1222. The poison center expert, a nurse or pharmacist, will ask you:

  • Is the person coughing, choking, or having any other symptoms?

  • What is the product?

  • When did this happen?

  • How old is the person?

  • Does he or she have other health problems?

  • What is your phone number?

Then, the specialist in poison information will tell you exactly what to do. Sometimes, close observation at home will be enough; the poison center will stay in touch with you by phone for a day or two. Sometimes, emergency department care will be needed. If so, the poison center will provide treatment advice to the emergency department staff.

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February 2012, The Poison Post®