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Cyanide Poisoning: Symptoms And Treatment

Cyanide poisoning

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How to Treat Cyanide Poisoning: Inhalation exposure to rapidly acting, potentially deadly chemicals can lead to cyanide poisoning. The critical factor for the victim’s survival is the timeframe first aid is given after the exposure.

What Is Cyanide Poisoning

Cyanide poisoning is the harmful act of inhaling or injecting one of the most famous poisons – cyanide.

From its appearance in spy novels to murder mysteries, cyanide is known for its reputation for causing almost immediate death. Sci-fi aside, cyanide is a little more complicated.

Cyanide is a chemical compound that contains a carbon-nitrogen (CN) bond, which is present in some surprising places. It is present in many safe-to-eat plant foods such as almonds, soy, lima beans, and spinach. It is also found in certain medications.

The extent of cyanide poisoning will depend on the amount of chemical exposure, its route, and the length of time that a person is exposed.

Common forms of potentially lethal cyanide may include sodium cyanide (NaCN), potassium cyanide (KCN), hydrogen cyanide (HCN), and cyanogen chloride (CNCl). These can appear in a solid, liquid, or gas form.

Symptoms Of Cyanide Poisoning

Detection of cyanide poisoning can be challenging. The effect of ingestion of this harmful compound can be similar to symptoms of suffocation.

Exposure to cyanide is possible through breathing, skin absorption, or eating foods that may have a small amount of the chemical. Regardless, all of these can result in signs and symptoms within minutes.

For mild early cyanide poisoning:

  • Irritation of the nose, mouth, and throat area
  • Migraine headache
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Sense of suffocation
  • Heaviness of limbs
  • General weakness

For severe cyanide poisoning

  • Gasping for breath
  • Low blood pressure
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness
  • Convulsions
  • Lung injury
  • Slow heart rate
  • Respiratory failure leading to death

In most cases, acute cyanide exposure will result in a dramatic and rapid onset, immediately affecting the heart and causing fainting. It can also cause immediate brain damage, seizures or coma.

While chronic cyanide poisoning from ingestion or exposure will result in a more gradual onset and symptoms.

First Aid Treatment

In the event of cyanide poisoning, time is of the essence. Immediately call triple zero (000) as you provide first aid assistance to the victim.

Only give first aid if no suspected cyanide is present in the immediate environment. If the harmful chemical is suspected, do not enter the area and alert the authorities.

Once the area is safe, do the following steps.

  1. Remove the casualty from the area if cyanide exposure is continuous. When possible, arrange for another isolation area.
  2. Remove the contaminated clothing and clean the skin thoroughly with generous amounts of clean water.
  3. Ensure an open airway but avoid using mouth-to-mouth resuscitation techniques due to the risk of contamination. Administer medical oxygen at the maximum rate, preferably via a CPR resuscitation mask.
  4. Administering high flow oxygen can also be helpful, but this is normally only an option for trained medical professionals.

The above first aid steps apply to all cases of cyanide poisoning. Treat the victim depending on the mode of cyanide exposure – whether through inhalation, ingestion, and absorption through the skin.

In addition, the following precaution should apply:

  • For eye contact, quickly rinse the eye with clean water for at least ten minutes, then treat it as above.
  • For ingestion, treat the cyanide poisoning as above and avoid giving anything by mouth.


Without treatment, acute or chronic cyanide poisoning may cause serious consequences such as seizure, cardiac arrest, coma, or death.

Seek immediate medical attention for any mild or severe symptoms of cyanide positioning. The essential thing is for the victims to receive first aid treatment as soon as possible while waiting for further medical help.

For more information on general first aid, enrol in a course with First Aid Courses Darwin.


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