Chemical Pneumonia: Causes, Treatment, And Prevention

Chemical pneumonia, technically known as chemical pneumonitis, is different from most typical cases of pneumonia. Where pneumonia is usually caused by either a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection, chemical pneumonia is caused by inflammation or irritation of the lungs and is not infectious. 

There are two forms of chemical pneumonitis:

  1. Acute pneumonitis, which is the rapid onset of symptoms after breathing in a chemical

  2. Chronic pneumonitis is a long-term condition where you are exposed to low levels of toxins that, over time, damage your lungs 

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Symptoms of chemical pneumonitis 

The symptoms of chemical pneumonitis are similar to infectious forms of pneumonia. They can be further categorized into acute or chronic pneumonitis. 

Acute pneumonitis symptoms include: 

  • The sensation of not being able to get enough air, or having trouble breathing

  • Breath that sounds wet or some gurgling sounds from the lungs

  • Cough

  • Burning feeling in the chest

Chronic pneumonitis symptoms include: 

  • Cough

  • Shortness of breath, especially after exercise

  • Rapid breathing 

Causes of chemical pneumonitis

Chemical pneumonitis results from chemicals getting into your lungs and causing inflammation. It could be one major event that causes your chemical pneumonitis (acute), or the damage could build up over time. 

This could be from inhaling or consuming potentially hazardous chemicals or from aspiration of stomach acid from your stomach. Aspiration of your stomach acid is when the valve between your stomach and esophagus doesn’t work properly, and stomach acid comes back up your throat and into your lungs. 

Once the stomach acid is in the lungs, it can lead to aspiration pneumonia, a form of chemical pneumonitis. Because aspiration, often in the form of reflux, is common in older adults, aspiration pneumonia is more common in the elderly.¹

Below are some of the common hazardous chemicals known to cause chemical pneumonitis:

  • Chlorine—is found in household cleaning agents such as bleach or chlorine pools

  • Dust from fertilizer and grains

  • Pesticide fumes

  • Smoke from wood burners, bonfires

  • Tobacco smoking and vaping

Specific jobs and environments will expose you to these harmful chemicals and increase your chance of getting chemical pneumonitis. They include:

  • Working in coal mines, construction sites, and farms

  • Working in a car garage or textile factory

  • Working in stone, clay, and glass manufacturing factories

  • Working in jobs that expose you to hazardous chemicals, dust, and fibers

  • Workplaces with a lot of particulate matter (PM), such as a combination of pollens, molds, dirt, ashes, and others

How do you know if you have chemical pneumonia?

If you know you have been exposed to potentially harmful chemicals and are experiencing the symptoms listed above, you may have chemical pneumonitis and should seek medical attention. 

Your doctor can carry out some tests to confirm a diagnosis. These tests include: 

  • Taking an x-ray or CT scan of your chest to check for inflammation

  • Taking your blood oxygen level to see if it is low (having trouble breathing could lead to low blood oxygen levels)

  • Checking your breathing and lung function

  • Checking your swallowing to see if aspiration may be the cause 

How to treat chemical pneumonia 

The main target for treatment is to reduce the inflammation and symptoms resulting from chemical pneumonitis. Corticosteroids can be used as a treatment in many cases.²

For infectious pneumonia, antibiotics are a standard treatment. Antibiotics are not as effective for chemical pneumonia unless a secondary infection has developed. In some cases, oxygen therapy and ventilators can be helpful.

Successful treatment will depend on the severity of the chemical injury and if the exposure is acute or chronic. Chronic chemical pneumonitis has more severe health consequences because prolonged exposure to chemicals causes damage to the lungs. 

If chemical pneumonitis is left undetected, untreated, or becomes severe, it can lead to respiratory failure and death. 

Prevention of chemical pneumonia

There are simple ways to reduce your risk of chemical pneumonia, such as:

  • Use cleaning products as directed and with caution

  • When using a chemical, make sure it’s in a well-ventilated space

  • When working with hazardous chemicals, make sure you are using the correct safety gear and following safety procedures

  • If you suffer from reflux or aspiration, eat small regular meals, don’t eat too close to bedtime, sit up while eating, and avoid trigger foods that might aggravate reflux

The lowdown

Chemical pneumonia differs from infectious forms of pneumonia in how it develops and is treated. It’s caused by inflammation in the lungs as a result of exposure to dangerous chemicals. 

There are some easy safety steps you can follow to avoid an incident that exposes you to dangerous chemicals. If an incident occurs or if you are concerned you may have chemical pneumonitis, seek medical attention immediately.

Frequently asked questions

How long does chemical pneumonia last? 

This will be different for every case. It depends on the severity of the exposure and whether it happened over a long period or was a one-off event. 

Other risk factors may also play a role. Age, medical conditions, or smoking may make your chemical pneumonia more likely to be more severe.

Is chemical pneumonia contagious? 

No, unlike typical cases of pneumonia, which are caused by pathogens and are contagious, chemical pneumonia is caused by exposure to chemicals and cannot be passed on. 

Can chemical pneumonia cause death? 

In some cases, if your pneumonia is more severe, it may lead to respiratory or organ failure and potentially death. This could be due to exposure to a dangerous chemical over a long period. It could also be due to other factors, such as age and medical history.

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