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First Aid for Varnish Poisoning

Last updated March 2, 2018

Approved by: Maulik P. Purohit MD, MPH

A varnish is a clear liquid with a distinctive smell. Varnishes comprise a variety of products that are used for providing polish and glazing coat for wood floor and furniture. Varnish Poisoning is the accidental or intentional intake of the compound. The intake may be through swallowing varnish liquid.

What is Varnish Poisoning?

  • A varnish is a clear liquid with a distinctive smell. Varnishes comprise a variety of products that are used for providing polish and glazing coat for wood floor and furniture. They are prepared using naturally-obtained oils, resins, and chemical solvents 
  • Varnish Poisoning is the accidental or intentional intake of the compound. The intake may be through swallowing varnish liquid
  • The condition is diagnosed based upon the clinical history, combination of signs and symptoms, and additional tests (that may include, in some cases, radiological studies and laboratory tests)

Varnish Poisoning may be also referred to as the following:

  • Varnish Toxicity
  • Wood Varnish Poisoning

What are the Causes of Varnish Poisoning?

  • Varnish Poisoning is caused by the ingestion or inhalation of varnish. The chemical may also get into the eye, resulting in eye-related symptoms
  • This intake could be accidental, or in some cases intentional, to bring self-harm
  • There are many types of varnish depending on the type of use, such as indoor vs outdoor. However, most varnishes contain a mixture of oils (such as linseed, walnut, or tung), resins (such as amber, shellac, pine resins, or polyurethane or phenolic resin), and solvents (including mineral spirits, turpentine oil, ethyl alcohol, etc.)

Note: The compound can interact with other prescribed or non-prescribed medications in the body. Such interactions may enhance the therapeutic effects of other medications being taken, resulting in undesired side effects.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Varnish Poisoning?

The signs and symptoms of Varnish Poisoning can vary from one individual to another. It may be mild in some and severe in others. Several systems of the body, such as the digestive system, respiratory system, vascular system, urinary system, skin and ENT may be affected.

The signs and symptoms of Varnish Poisoning may include:

  • Burning and associated pain in the mouth, throat, and food-pipe; this may affect the nose, ears, and eyes
  • Throat inflammation may cause difficulty in swallowing, breathing
  • Respiratory difficulties, which may be severe if the chemical is inhaled
  • Bluish discoloration of lips and beneath fingernails
  • Skin burns
  • Vision abnormalities including loss of vision
  • Blood in urine (hematuria)
  • Headache and lethargy
  • Nausea, vomiting (blood in vomit may be seen)
  • Bloody stools
  • Stomach and abdominal pain that may be severe and cramping
  • Sudden reduction in blood pressure (hypotension)
  • Feeling dizzy, irritable, sleepy (or loss of sleep)
  • Forgetfulness
  • Low level of alertness or response
  • Individuals act ‘drunk’
  • Unable to walk properly; lack of coordinated movements
  • Coma
  • In some cases, irreversible brain injury may take place

How is First Aid administered for Varnish Poisoning?

First Aid tips for Varnish Poisoning:

  • Call 911 or your local emergency help number immediately, for emergency assistance
  • Call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 (or your local poison control center) for further instructions
  • Provide them with information such as the compound taken, quantity and time of ingestion, age, weight and general health status of affected individual
  • Carefully remove the individual from the exposure area; move them to region of fresh air immediately
  • Confirm that the airways are protected; also, ensure breathing and the presence of pulse
  • If exposure of the eye has occurred, then wash thoroughly with copious amounts of water. Any paint on skin may be washed away
  • Unless instructed by a healthcare professional, DO NOT induce vomiting in the affected individual
  • Following an ingestion of the substance, immediately give water to drink
  • In case of symptoms that indicate difficulty in swallowing including vomiting or decreased alertness, do not give anything by way of mouth
  • Take individual to emergency room (ER) for further treatment
  • Always try to take the compound bottle/container to the ER

The emergency medical health professional might perform the following steps towards treating the condition:

  • Monitor vital signs
  • Medically manage symptoms and provide breathing support, if necessary
  • Wash eyes or skin repeatedly and thoroughly (irrigation), to eliminate any remaining compound
  • Surgical treatment for skin burns including removal of burnt skin
  • Administer fluids by an intravenous drip line

Who should administer First Aid for Varnish Poisoning?

First aid for Varnish Poisoning is administered by healthcare professionals.

  • The individual who is affected, or someone near, should call 911 for emergency assistance (or the local emergency number)
  • They should also call the poison control center at 1-800-222-1222 (or the local poison control center) and follow instructions

What is the Prognosis of Varnish Poisoning?

  • The prognosis of Varnish Poisoning is dependent on the amount of substance consumed, time between consumption and treatment, severity of the symptoms, as well as general health status of the patient
  • If the individual can recover from the symptoms, with appropriate medication and early support, the outcome is generally good
  • Since, the ingredients of varnish compounds may be highly poisonous, the severity of damage to the body, and consequently the prognosis, is dependent on the amount of chemical ingested and promptness with which treatment is provided
  • In some case, burns in the mouth, throat, or gastrointestinal tract may be severe. This can lead to severe pain, bleeding, and infection, and potentially worsen the outcome. The varnish chemicals have the potential to cause holes in the GI tract
  • In case of complications, such as aspiration of swallowed oil into the lungs or eye exposure leading to blindness (if the cornea is affected), the outcome may be adversely affected

In general, toxicities are common situations in the emergency departments. A majority of the cases are often not fatal, when appropriate treatment is given.

How can Varnish Poisoning be Prevented?

Varnish Poisoning can be prevented by:

  • Always following instructions for usage of any household products
  • Keeping cosmetics, medications, and other healthcare products out of reach of children in child-proof containers
  • Keeping any poisonous/hazardous chemicals and other materials out of children’s reach
  • Keep all poisons correctly labeled and in suitable storage locations
  • Using appropriate protective wear when working with such chemicals (such as face masks and hand gloves)
  • Being aware of basic first aid steps in case of an emergency (such as inadvertent poisoning)

What are certain Crucial Steps to be followed?

  • Call 911 (or your local emergency number) for emergency assistance, if symptoms are life-threatening
  • Call Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 (or the local poison control center) and follow the recommend steps
  • It would be helpful if the following information is readily available:
    • Type, amount and time of consumption of the substance
    • Age and weight of the individual
    • And, the overall health status of the individual

What are some Useful Resources for Additional Information?

References and Information Sources used for the Article:

Helpful Peer-Reviewed Medical Articles:

Reviewed and Approved by a member of the DoveMed Editorial Board
First uploaded: Aug. 7, 2017
Last updated: March 2, 2018