Some Things Just Don’t Mix: Poison Control Tips for Chemicals

Julie Weber Trending Topics

QUICK FACTS

  • Many chemicals can cause symptoms if mixed together while cleaning.
  • Never mix chemicals, keep all cleaners in their original containers.
  • There are some medications that should not be mixed with certain foods, alcohol or other medications.

CHEMICALS

Spring cleaning is here! Most people are aware that cleaners should not be mixed, however sometimes it happens by mistake, especially when we are dealing with a tough stain. What chemicals should not be mixed?  Keep reading to find out!

Household bleach  

Although household bleach smells very strong, the product is mostly made up of water.  The actual bleach chemical (sodium hypochlorite) varies in concentration from 5-8%.  On its own, bleach can be irritating, especially when used in closed spaces with little to no ventilation.  When bleach is mixed with ammonia containing cleaners, chloramine gas is released. If it is mixed with cleaners having an acidic pH (such as vinegar), chlorine gas is released.  Chlorine gas can also be released when bleach is mixed with urine, such as when cleaning the area around a toilet or when pets stains are cleaned.  

Both chloramine and chlorine gases are immediately irritating with a very pungent odor, causing watering of the eyes, runny nose and coughing.  Our natural reaction is to turn our faces away from the gas, and to leave the area, which is our body’s way of protecting us from further symptoms. Sometimes people are just determined to finish their cleaning job, but it is very important to listen to your body and get away from the area.  If possible, crack a window open and turn on the vent fan.  Close the door to the room and stay out of the area until the smell has dissipated. Symptoms are usually relieved with fresh air and sipping cool fluids.  Exposure to chlorine and chloramine gases are rarely serious, with only a small percentage of cases requiring medical attention.  

Vinegar and peroxide  

Vinegar has become a favorite for those wanting to avoid chemical cleaners, but it should not be mixed with hydrogen peroxide (keep in mind many of the OxiCleanTM products contain hydrogen peroxide).  When vinegar of any kind is mixed in the same container with hydrogen peroxide, periacetic acid is formed.  Periacetic acid is used as a sanitizer, but in high concentrations it is corrosive and can cause irritation of the skin, eyes and respiratory system.

Pool chemicals  

Chlorine-based pool chemicals typically come in large containers of tablets or granules.  These chemicals should be kept in a cool and dry place, but commonly they are kept close to the swimming pool (which is neither cool nor dry!).  Poison centers often receive calls when a container left in direct sunlight is opened and a “poof” of chlorine gas escapes into the person’s face.  The reaction is swift and can be scary: gagging, coughing, and choking with difficulty breathing and speaking can occur.

Before using pool chemicals, read the label directions closely and wear any recommended safety protection to avoid such an exposure. Always handle chemicals in a well-ventilated area.  Open one product container at a time and make sure it is closed prior to opening another. Most pool chemicals are intended to be added to large volumes of water in the pool, so add the chemical to the water.  NEVER add water to the pool chemical due to the potential for an explosive reaction.  Finally, do not transfer chemicals from one bottle to another, even if it is the same exact product.  Trace amounts of the original chemical can react with the introduced product and a chemical reaction can generate a toxic gas or even heat which can result in chemical burns.

Fragrances

So many products we use today have added fragrance, just think about doing a load of laundry!  There are detergents, stain removers, bleach products, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, and more…all of which contain their own fragrance.  Now, there are also specially designed products to add fragrance to clothes while in the washer that lasts even through multiple washes.  Using just one fragrance can cause issues, but the use of multiple fragrances can cause headache, sneezing, runny nose and eyes, and coughing in sensitive individuals.  Be aware of the products you are using that contain a fragrance, and if you or someone in your home has sensitivities, consider using fragrance-free options.

MEDICATIONS

Not only should we do our research before we mix chemicals, we should also be just as careful about how we mix medications. There are some medications that should not be mixed with certain foods, alcohol or other medications.  

Grapefruit

Be sure to read the Drug Facts label on any medication you are taking, even medications that you have purchased over-the-counter.  Grapefruit interferes with many different medications, especially those that are taken to treat heart conditions, high cholesterol (statins), and some antibiotics.  Your body breaks down medications using enzymes so that they can be eliminated out of the body. Grapefruit can inhibit these enzymes, causing the enzymes to not work like they are supposed to. This results in a build-up of the medication (because the body isn’t breaking it down anymore) and can increase the risk of side effects. The severity of the interaction will depend upon the individual taking the medication, the type of medication taken, and the amount of grapefruit consumed.  Make sure to tell your physician or pharmacist if you eat or drink grapefruit juice; you may need to avoid this fruit while taking certain medications.  If you do not consume grapefruit juice, it is still best to check the labels of all fruit juices, because some are made using grapefruits.

Alcohol

Drinking alcoholic beverages puts people at risk for an interaction when ingested with many different medications. The elderly are particularly at high risk for harmful interactions because as we age, the body’s ability to break down alcohol slows, resulting in alcohol remaining in the system longer.  In general, women are more at risk for interactions than men due to smaller body size and having less body water than men.

Mixing medications and alcohol can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, drowsiness, a loss of coordination, and sometimes risk for internal bleeding.  Some medications are made less effective when taken with alcohol, and some medications make alcohol more harmful or toxic to your body.  Patients taking the antibiotic Flagyl®, or metronidazole, should avoid ingestion of alcohol while taking the medication AND for three days after ending the treatment.  If these two are mixed, there can be abdominal cramping, flushing, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, dizziness and headache.  The medication Antabuse® (disulfiram) is prescribed for chronic alcoholics to maintain sobriety.  If alcohol is ingested while taking Antabuse®, it has a similar toxic profile as the reaction explained above.

Birth control pills

If you are using birth control pills, be aware that being on some antibiotics can make the birth control pills less effective.  Be sure to tell your physician if you are taking birth control pills and need an antibiotic. Many physicians recommend using a backup form of birth control while taking antibiotics.

 

For any questions or concerns about mixing chemicals or medications, call the Poison Help line at 1-800-222-1222. Specially trained nurses and pharmacists are available 24/7/365 to answer your questions. The service is free and confidential.

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