What’s in drain cleaner, and what happens if you drink it?

pouring drain cleaner down a shower drain

The Bottom Line

Liquid drain cleaners contain potentially poisonous acidic or basic compounds, enzymes, and bacteria that are effective in clearing clogged drains. Since many drain cleaners contain highly concentrated corrosive chemicals, they must be used with caution. Consumption of non-enzymatic drain cleaners can result in serious burns, permanent tissue damage, and even death.

person using baking soda to clean drain

What is in drain cleaner?

Drain cleaners contain enzymes and other strong chemicals that break down oily and greasy residue found in sink and shower drains. Enzymatic drain cleaners contain bacteria and enzymes that dissolve clogs, while non-enzymatic drain cleaners contain acidic or alkaline chemicals that break down drain debris. Common acidic ingredients in non-enzymatic drain cleaners include sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid, and common alkali ingredients include sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide. Some drain cleaners generate heat when the contents are mixed together and poured down a drain. The heat helps melt grease and other oily drain-blocking substances. Because drain cleaners often contain high concentrations of powerful chemicals, these products are potentially dangerous when used incorrectly or without adequate personal protective equipment.  

What happens if you drink drain cleaner?

Since many drain cleaners contain corrosive chemicals, people who drink drain cleaner can experience severe chemical burns and damage to the mouth, throat, esophagus, and stomach. Consumption of non-enzymatic drain cleaners, which contain powerful corrosive and caustic chemicals, can result in complications including difficulty swallowing, permanent damage to the esophagus (food pipe) and stomach, and even death. 

Making homemade drain cleaner with baking soda and vinegar

A common homemade drain cleaner recipe involves the use of  baking soda and vinegar to clean out a drain. Baking soda is a base and vinegar is an acid, and carbon dioxide gas is formed when these two products are mixed together. Some sources suggest that the carbon dioxide gas formed in this chemical reaction may create enough pressure in a drain to dislodge debris and unclog the drain. Unfortunately, this homemade recipe may not be highly effective in relieving drain blockages. Since drains are not airtight, the carbon dioxide gas formed through the chemical reaction can escape from the drain cover, so the gas generally does not build up enough pressure to release clogged drain contents. In addition, the combination of vinegar and baking soda is likely not strong enough to melt away tough drain clogs due to oil and grease. 

What happens if you get drain cleaner on your skin?

Drain cleaners that contain corrosive or caustic chemicals can cause pain, irritation, and burns when they come into contact with skin. Skin injury from drain cleaner exposure can occur when drain cleaners splash back from the drain area. This can happen if the drain cleaner is poured from too high up, or if too much product is poured into a completely blocked drain. 

What should you do if someone drinks drain cleaner, gets drain cleaner on the skin, or inhales drain cleaner fumes?

If someone drinks drain cleaner, gets drain cleaner on the skin, or inhales fumes from drain cleaner, get guidance from Poison Control immediately. Help from Poison Control is available online at www.poison.org and by phone at 1-800-222-1222. Both options are free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day.

Tammy Zhao, PharmD
Certified Specialist in Poison Information 

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Wear protective gear when using drain cleaners, including rubber gloves and goggles.
  • Pour carefully and close to the drain to avoid splashing.
  • Keep drain cleaner containers tightly closed, clean and away from sight and reach of children.

This Really Happened

While at a party, an adult man’s friends played a prank on him and swapped his alcoholic drink with a drain cleaner that contained potassium hydroxide. He took a sip and then spat out the rest. However, he experienced immediate pain and burning in  his tongue, mouth, and throat. He was taken to a hospital where a breathing tube was inserted and he was treated with antibiotics and corticosteroids. He was discharged 5 days later with a prescription for opioid analgesics to treat his remaining pain. Unfortunately, his burn injuries caused permanent scarring of his tongue which resulted in difficulty with the pronunciation of certain letters. He also developed a transient addiction to opioid pain medications.

For More Information

Drain opener poisoning (Mount Sinai Health System)

References

Rutala WA, Barbee SL, Aguiar NC, Sobsey MD, Weber DJ. Antimicrobial activity of home disinfectants and natural products against potential human pathogens. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol. 2000 Jan;21(1):33-8. doi: 10.1086/501694. PMID: 10656352.

Pedersen TØ, Solheim E, Løes S. Accidental ingestion of drain cleaner. BMJ Case Rep. 2020 Sep 7;13(9):e237079. doi: 10.1136/bcr-2020-237079. PMID: 32900743; PMCID: PMC7477999.

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Wear protective gear when using drain cleaners, including rubber gloves and goggles.
  • Pour carefully and close to the drain to avoid splashing.
  • Keep drain cleaner containers tightly closed, clean and away from sight and reach of children.

This Really Happened

While at a party, an adult man’s friends played a prank on him and swapped his alcoholic drink with a drain cleaner that contained potassium hydroxide. He took a sip and then spat out the rest. However, he experienced immediate pain and burning in  his tongue, mouth, and throat. He was taken to a hospital where a breathing tube was inserted and he was treated with antibiotics and corticosteroids. He was discharged 5 days later with a prescription for opioid analgesics to treat his remaining pain. Unfortunately, his burn injuries caused permanent scarring of his tongue which resulted in difficulty with the pronunciation of certain letters. He also developed a transient addiction to opioid pain medications.