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:
- Various substances produced from plants and insects (such as the lac insect and urethanes)
The harmful substances in the solvents are:
- Mineral spirits
Some varnishes contain these substances.
Below are symptoms of varnish poisoning in different parts of the body.
EYES, EARS, NOSE, AND THROAT
- Loss of vision
- Severe pain in the throat
- Severe pain or burning in the nose, eyes, ears, lips, or tongue
KIDNEYS AND BLADDER
LUNGS AND AIRWAYS
- Breathing difficulty
- Throat swelling (which may also cause breathing difficulty)
HEART AND BLOOD
- Low blood pressure that develops rapidly
- Coma (decreased level of consciousness and lack of responsiveness)
- Impaired memory
- Loss of coordination
- Sensation of being drunk
- Severe brain damage
- Stupor (decreased level of consciousness)
- Walking difficulties
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:
- Person's age, weight, and condition
- Name of the product (ingredients, if known)
- Time it was swallowed
- Amount swallowed
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:
- Blood and urine tests.
- Breathing support, including a tube down the throat into the lungs, and a breathing machine (ventilator).
- Bronchoscopy -- camera placed down the throat to see burns in the airways and lungs.
- Chest x-ray.
- Endoscopy -- camera down the throat to see burns in the esophagus and the stomach.
- EKG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing).
- Fluid through the vein (by IV).
- Medicines to treat symptoms.
- Surgery to remove burned skin.
- Washing of the skin (irrigation). This may need to be done every few hours for several days.
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.
Theobald JL, Kostic MA. Poisoning. In: Kliegman RM, St Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 77.
Wang GS, Buchanan JA. Hydrocarbons. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 152.
Reviewed By: Jesse Borke, MD, FACEP, FAAEM, Attending Physician at FDR Medical Services/Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Buffalo, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.