We reviewed the case histories of 743 children seen at our hospital from 1981 to 1990 for suspected ingestion of caustic substances. Mean patient age was 27 months; 85% of patients were less than 3 years old. The male-to-female ratio was about 2:1. About 53% of patients were from urban environments. All ingestions appear to have been accidental. Of the 743 children, 20% presented oesophageal burns (11.8% first-degree, 3.1% second-degree and 2.7% third-degree). Alkaline products were ingested about 11 times more frequently than acid products. The substance ingested was bleach in 73% of cases. The most dangerous substances were dishwasher liquids/powders (59% of ingestions led to oesophageal burn), caustic soda (55%) and drain cleaners (55%). The caustic product was not in its original container in 75% of cases. Most accidents (58%) took place in the home. We did not detect any reliable predictive relationship between the presence of symptoms and signs and of oesophageal burns. Of the 743 patients, 5% developed oesophageal stricture and 3% required oesophageal dilatation.
Conclusion: The incidence of accidents caused by the ingestion of caustic substances can only be reduced by broad-based preventive strategies, including enforcement of safe manufacturing practices and public education programmes. Most importantly, the containers for caustic household products should be cheap, small and childproof.