What happens if you drink bleach?

James Vines

Before we begin, if you suspect someone has ingested a large quantity of bleach, this article does not contain the medical advice you need to help them. It does however contain a list of unfortunate consequences that will befall them should you not seek said medical advice immediately. A good place to find the lifesaving information they so desperately need is by phoning the emergency services.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about bleach. For most of us, bleach is used as a household cleaner. It is used for disinfecting toilets, drains and other smelly areas, due to its antimicrobial properties. Most bleaches used as household cleaners are chlorine based, and contain the active compound hypochlorous acid. A 2008 study shows that hypochlorous acid can cause proteins to unfold and clump together. Unfolding and clumping of proteins within a microbe will cause a loss protein functionality.

Consequently, the microbe will stop growing. Hypochlorous acid is also a chemical oxidiser, which strips electrons from anything it touches. This property is what makes bleach corrosive to organic substances, and further aides with its antimicrobial activity.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Other than cleaning, bleach is also used for another purpose. Bleaching things! Bleaches can be used to remove pigments from fabrics, hair, and…other places. Chlorine based bleaches perform this action by breaking chemical bonds in chromophores, meaning they no longer absorb visible light.

A final place you may have may have encountered bleach is on the internet. Here, you may have seen the phase “drink bleach” banded around by certain nefarious individuals. According to KnowYourMeme.com, the phase originates from way back in 2001. However, it was not until recently the phase gained ‘popularity’, due to its spread amount certain YouTube prank videos.

Meme’s aside, if you did happen to drink a large quantity of bleach, you’d be in a bit of a mess. Upon ingestion: feelings of pain, irritation and nausea are highly likely. The pain is the consequence of burns to the linings of the stomach and oesophagus. The longer the bleach sits in your stomach, the worse the burns will get, as the active compound has more time to oxidises its way through your gut.

Additionally, toxic chlorine gas can be formed in the stomach due to reactivity of hypochlorite with acid. Chlorine gas is an irritant which attacks the body’s mucous membranes and will cause burns within its own right. Breathing in chlorine gas is extremely fatal. Furthermore, your body will be faced with a sudden rise in sodium levels, due to the high sodium content of the bleach. This leads to a condition called hypernatremia, which can lead to circulatory and neuronal problems. After a relatively short amount of time, permanent and debilitating damage to the gut will have occurred, and without medical treatment this will lead to a slow and painful death.

If you have ingested bleach, and seek medical advice, you will probably be told to drink a large amount of water to attempt to dilute the bleach while it sits in your stomach. It is not recommended to induce vomiting however, as this will re-expose the oesophagus, throat and mouth to the bleach. If you make it so far as a hospital you will most likely have your stomach pumped. Depending on damage to your digestive system you may have to have a esophagectomy and colon interposition performed, which involves attaching part of your small intestine to your throat. Unfortunately, this bypasses your chronically damaged stomach, consequently, you’ll have to eat through a straw for the rest of your life. On a slightly more positive note, these steps are normally effective; and most people admitted to hospital because of poisoning will survive.

Although chlorine based bleaches make up the majority of those commercially available, other kinds do exist. Peroxide bleaches are commonly used to bleach hair. Their activity is conferred through an oxygen-oxygen single bond, which can break to yield a highly reactive oxygen species. Peracetic acids and ozone are also used as a bleach in paper manufacturing, and bromates are used to bleach flour and other food products.

Wait, food products?! Yes, despite all the gruesome warnings described above, low concentrations of bleach can actually be used to protect us, not harm us. In fact, if a natural disaster has occurs, and clean drinking water cannot be found, bleach can be used to sterilise it. In these situations, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adding 0.75ml of common household bleach to every gallon of water. As long as the concentration is low enough, bleach will just kill microbes and not us. In fact, most experts agree, that drinking a small cup of bleach straight from the container would only give you a bad stomach upset and probably wouldn’t kill you. This is because household bleach only contains around 3% Sodium Hypochlorite. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend following the advice of internet trolls, and ask for a pint of bleach next time you’re down the pub. However, if you’ve got a dirty toilet, some hair that’s too dark, or some water that seems a bit sketchy, bleach might be your answer! Just make sure you get it to the right concentration!

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