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  • Hydrocarbon-containing products are ubiquitous in daily life.
  • Viscosity, surface tension, and volatility are three important properties to assess the toxicity of liquid hydrocarbons.
  • The primary concern after hydrocarbon ingestion is pulmonary toxicity.
  • Clinical manifestations of hydrocarbon ingestion depend on the amount and route of exposure.
  • Coughing, gagging, chocking, and vomiting after hydrocarbon ingestion is presumptive of aspiration.
  • The mainstay of treatment for hydrocarbon exposure is supportive care.


The term hydrocarbon is used to describe a large number of organic molecules that contain mostly hydrogen and carbon atoms. Hydrocarbons are primarily derived from petroleum distillates but may also be derived from other sources such as plants, animal fats, and natural gas. Hydrocarbon-containing products are pervasive in daily life (Table 114–1).

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Table 114-1. Common Hydrocarbon Products

In 2006, the National Poison Data System reported nearly 50 000 pediatric hydrocarbon exposures in the United States.1 Eighty-seven percent of those exposures were unintentional. The most common exposures reported were gasoline, fluorochlorocarbons/propellant, lubricating/motor oil, lighter fluid, lamp oil, diesel fuel, and kerosene. Young children tend to have accidental exposures; adolescent exposures tend to represent the abuse of volatile hydrocarbons or suicidal attempts/gestures. Fortunately, deaths from hydrocarbon exposures are rare.


There are two basic types of hydrocarbon molecules. The aliphatic compounds consist of a branched or straight chain structure; the cyclic hydrocarbons consist of a closed ring. Each of these basic types have many subtypes, all with varying characteristics such as hydrogen or carbon substitutions, the presence of one or more double covalent bond, multiring structures, etc.


The length of the hydrocarbon chain affects the chemical properties of the molecule. Short-chain molecules, such as butane, are gases at room temperature. Intermediate length chains, which encompass the majority of chemical exposures, are liquids at room temperature. The long-chain hydrocarbons, such as paraffin and tar, are solids at room temperatures.


Viscosity, surface tension, and volatility are three important physical properties used to assess the toxicity of liquid hydrocarbons. Viscosity is the measurement of a liquid's resistance to flow. Volatility describes the tendency of a liquid to become a gas. Surface tension describes the property of adherence of a liquid compound along a surface. These three properties are used to assess the risk of pulmonary toxicity from hydrocarbon ingestion.


Pulmonary toxicity is the primary concern after hydrocarbon ingestions. The exact pathogenesis of hydrocarbon-induced pulmonary toxicity is debated in the literature; however, aspiration of hydrocarbons can lead to direct injury of lung tissue.2 The viscosity, surface tension, and volatility of hydrocarbons determine the risk of aspiration during ingestion. Compounds with low viscosity, low surface tension, and high volatility have a higher risk of aspiration and subsequent ...

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