The Clinical Toxicology of Sodium Hypochlorite

Clin Toxicol (Phila). 2019 May;57(5):303-311. doi: 10.1080/15563650.2018.1543889. Epub 2019 Jan 28.


Introduction: Sodium hypochlorite is used as a bleaching and disinfecting agent and is commonly found in household bleach.

Objective: The objective is to review critically the epidemiology, mechanisms of toxicity, clinical features, diagnosis, and management of hypochlorite poisoning.

Methods: PubMed was searched from January 1950 to June 2018 using the terms "Hypochlorite", "Sodium Hypochlorite", "Sodium Oxychloride", "Hypochlorous Acid", "Bleach", "Chlorine Bleach", in combination with the keywords "poisoning", "poison", "toxicity", "ingestion", "adverse effects", "overdose", and "intoxication". In addition, bibliographies of identified articles were screened for additional relevant studies including non-indexed reports. Non-peer-reviewed sources were also included. These searches produced 110 citations which were considered relevant.

Epidemiology: There is limited information regarding statistical trends on world-wide poisoning from sodium hypochlorite. In the United States of America, poison control center data have shown that enquiries regarding hypochlorite bleaches have ranged from 43,000 to 46,000 per year over the period 2012-2016. Mechanisms of toxicity: Hypochlorite's potential to cause toxicity is related to its oxidizing capacity and the pH of the solution. Toxicity arises from its corrosive activity upon contact with mucous membranes and skin. Features following ingestion: While small accidental ingestions are very unlikely to cause clinically significant toxicity, large ingestions may cause corrosive gastrointestinal injury and systemic effects, including metabolic acidosis, hypernatremia, and hyperchloremia. Features following dental exposure: Hypochlorite is used extensively by dentists for cleaning root canals and is safe if the solution remains within the root canal. Extrusions into the periapical area can result in severe pain with localized large and diffuse swelling and hemorrhage. Features following skin exposure: Prolonged or extensive exposure may cause skin irritation and damage to the skin or dermal hypersensitivity. Such exposures can result in either immediate or delayed-type skin reactions. High concentration solutions have caused severe chemical skin burns. Features following inhalation: Although there are only limited data, inhalation of hypochlorite alone is likely to lead to no more than mild irritation of the upper airways. Features following ocular exposure: Corneal injuries from ocular exposure are generally mild with burning discomfort and superficial disturbance of the corneal epithelium with recovery within 1 or 2 days. With higher concentration solutions, severe eye irritation can occur.

Diagnosis: The diagnosis can typically be made on the basis of a careful history, including details of the specific product used, its hypochlorite concentration, and the amount involved. As hypochlorite bleach produces a characteristic smell of chlorine, this may provide a diagnostic clue. In severe cases, corrosive injury is suggested on presentation because of hypersalivation, difficulty swallowing, retrosternal pain or hematemesis.

Management: Symptom-directed supportive care is the mainstay of management. Gastrointestinal decontamination is not beneficial. Local corrosive injury is the major focus of treatment in severe cases. Fiberoptic endoscopy and CT thorax/abdomen are complimentary and have been shown to be useful in corrosive injuries in assessing the severity of injury, risk of mortality and risk of subsequent stricture formation and should be performed as soon as possible after ingestion. Dental periapical extrusion injuries should be left open for some minutes to allow bleeding through the tooth and to limit hematoma development in tissue spaces. Once the bleeding has ceased, the canal can be dressed with non-setting calcium hydroxide and sealed coronally.

Conclusions: Accidental ingestion of household bleach is not normally of clinical significance. However, those who ingest a large amount of a dilute formulation or a high concentration preparation can develop severe, and rarely fatal, corrosive injury so prompt supportive care is essential as there is no specific antidote. Treatment primarily consists of symptom-directed supportive care.

Keywords: Bleach; chlorine bleach; hypochlorite; hypochlorous acid; sodium hypochlorite.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acidosis / chemically induced
  • Acidosis / epidemiology
  • Animals
  • Disinfectants / chemistry
  • Disinfectants / poisoning*
  • Eye Diseases / chemically induced
  • Eye Diseases / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Hypernatremia / chemically induced
  • Hypernatremia / diagnosis
  • Hypernatremia / epidemiology
  • Inhalation Exposure / adverse effects
  • Oxidants / chemistry
  • Oxidants / poisoning*
  • Poisoning* / diagnosis
  • Poisoning* / epidemiology
  • Poisoning* / therapy
  • Prognosis
  • Respiratory Tract Diseases / chemically induced
  • Respiratory Tract Diseases / epidemiology
  • Risk Assessment
  • Skin Diseases / chemically induced
  • Skin Diseases / epidemiology
  • Sodium Hypochlorite / chemistry
  • Sodium Hypochlorite / poisoning*
  • Tooth Bleaching Agents / chemistry
  • Tooth Bleaching Agents / poisoning*


  • Disinfectants
  • Oxidants
  • Tooth Bleaching Agents
  • Sodium Hypochlorite