Nicotine (chemical formula: C₁₀H₁₄N₂), is a colourless to pale yellow liquid. It is oily with a slight fishy odour when warm and an acrid burning taste. Nicotine turns brown when it is exposed to air. It is very soluble in alcohol, chloroform, ether, kerosene and oils. Nicotine is an alkaloid that is most commonly naturally occurring in the tobacco plant.
Due to it’s highly addictive properties as seen with cigarettes, the primary use of nicotine is for treating nicotine dependence so individuals can quit smoking. Common nicotine products that aid in the quitting of smoking include; gums, patches, inhalers, sprays, and lozenges. They are effective by administering controlled concentrations of nicotine, causing users to achieve the craving they seek without the need for cigarettes, until they can eventually wean themselves off cigarettes completely.
The routes of exposure for nicotine include; inhalation, ingestion and skin and eye contact.
Inhalation of nicotine may produce severely toxic effects with absorption from the lungs possibly proving fatal. Prolonged periods of exposure may cause respiratory discomfort.
Nicotine is amongst the most toxic poisons with symptoms presenting within 15 minutes of ingestion. The probable lethal dose by ingestion is about 05-1.0mg/kg. Symptoms of less severe exposure may include; burning of the mouth and throat, less severe exposures characterised by; profuse salivation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain, dizziness, mental confusion, faintness and convulsions. More severe exposure can cause; central nervous system symptoms, headaches, confusion, dizziness, agitation and incoordination with convulsions and coma following. Respiratory arrest may also occur with death as a result.
Eye exposure is expected to cause irritation and ocular lesions that can remain for over a day after the exposure. Prolonged exposure can cause inflammation, redness, vision impairment and other transient eye damage.
Based on animal experiments, there are concerns that nicotine may have carcinogenic or mutagenic effects. There is also some evidence that human exposure may result in developmental toxicity.
If inhaled, remove the patient from the contaminated area to the nearest fresh air source. Lay the patient down and keep them warm and rested. If the patient is not breathing and you are qualified to do so, perform CPR, preferably with a bag-valve mask device. Transport to hospital without delay.
If swallowed, urgent hospital treatment is likely to be required. If medical attention is more than 15 minutes away, induce vomiting with fingers down the back of the throat, ensuring they are leaned forward or placed on their left side to prevent aspiration.
If skin exposure occurs, remove all contaminated clothing and footwear and immediately apply a diluted vinegar solution to the area of skin that has been exposed. If this isn’t available, flush the affected area with plenty of soap and running water, using a safety shower if possible. Seek medical attention.
If the chemical is exposed to the eyes, flush the eyes out immediately with fresh running water for at least 15 minutes, remembering to wash under the eyelids. Removal of contact lenses should only be done by a skilled individual. Transport to hospital without delay.
Emergency eyewash fountains and safety showers should be accessible in the immediate area of the potential exposure to the chemical and there should always be adequate ventilation to remove or dilute any air contaminants to prevent overexposure (install local exhaust if necessary).
The PPE recommended when handling nicotine includes; safety glasses with unperforated side shields, chemical goggles, gas masks, elbow length PVC gloves, overalls and safety boots. Skin barrier and cleansing creams are also recommended in the event of skin exposure.
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