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What if you drink bleach?

        Science | What If

It's important to act quickly if you ingest a significant amount of bleach.
It's important to act quickly if you ingest a significant amount of bleach.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It's late at night, and you head to the kitchen for a glass of water. The lights are low and you can't see very well, but after you eye a big jug on a countertop near to the sink, you swig down a mouthful of its contents. Only then do you realize your mistake: You've just chugged down bleach. What's going to happen next?

First, if you came across this article because there's an unfolding emergency after you or a loved one drank bleach, stop reading and call the American Association of Poison Control Centers at 800-222-1222 or dial 911. Now.

With that out of the way, let's take a closer look at bleach itself. You probably keep some in a cabinet stocked with all the cleaning supplies you pull out when it's time to give your countertops and bathrooms a good scrubbing. The active ingredient in bleach is a salt-based chemical compound called sodium hypochlorite, a relatively clear liquid that's diluted with water and used to kill fungi, bacteria and viruses, and helps you make it through flu season in one piece. But sodium hypochlorite is also corrosive, meaning it can destroy human tissue.

Returning to that late-night scene in the kitchen, should you worry about drinking a mouthful of bleach? You'll probably be fine. Most household bleaches contain fairly low concentrations of sodium hypochlorite -- about 3 to 6 percent. That's not an endorsement for trying it, but for the average adult, you shouldn't expect anything worse than an upset stomach.

Now, what if you pop the cap and start guzzling away? Or what if you slurp from a more concentrated supply of industrial-strength bleach, where the percentage of sodium hypochlorite can swell to double digits? You're in for a world of hurt. Symptoms range from gagging, pain and irritation in the mouth and throat; pain and possible burns in the esophagus and stomach; vomiting; and shock can appear right away to within a few hours. If you don't treat the symptoms immediately, you can permanently damage your gastrointestinal tract and internal organs -- and, depending on how much you drink, you could die.

Long-term damage and fatalities are uncommon, but it's still important to act quickly. As long as you aren't throwing up or convulsing, drink 4 to 8 ounces (118 to 237 milliliters) of milk or water to dilute the bleach [source:ATSDR]. Unless Poison Control says otherwise, don't make yourself throw up. After the ambulance arrives and you reach the hospital, possible treatment measures could include an endoscopy or a gastric lavage, a procedure to suck the contents of your stomach out through a tube [source: MedlinePlus].

Accidental ingestion aside, it's actually recommended to drink a small amount of bleach on certain occasions. When natural disasters and other events impact the water supply and make drinking water unsafe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend mixing between 0.125 and 0.25 of a teaspoon (0.75 to 1.5 milliliters) of unscented bleach per gallon of water [source: CDC].