Bleach and vinegar are two of the most common household cleaners. On their own, they're effective at removing dirt, grime and even disinfecting surfaces. However, this doesn't mean that combining the two will create a super-cleaner — in fact, it actually puts your health at serious risk.
Mixing vinegar and bleach together releases a poisonous chlorine gas, which can be fatal if inhaled at high enough concentrations. Another common household cleaning mistake?
In TikTok that went viral last month, user @silkalmondmilk_ers detailed how she accidentally cleaned the kitchen with vinegar and bleach. As a result, her entire family spent Christmas stuck in the same room on the phone poison control.
The chlorine gas cautionary tale garnered over 21 million views and 2.7 million likes — but more importantly, it pointed out a common household cleaning mistake that poison experts say countless adults make every year in the United States.
What happens if you mix bleach and vinegar?
Vinegar is made of acetic acid and water, and when you mix bleach with an acid, this forms chlorine gas, Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a medical toxicology physician and interim executive director at the National Capital Poison Center, tells TODAY.com. So combining any amount of bleach and vinegar will create a specific chemical reaction that releases this poisonous gas into the surrounding air.
Chlorine gas is yellow-green in color and has a strong, irritating odor similar to bleach, and the smell on its own is often a warning, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although chlorine is often added to swimming pools in liquid, powder, or tablet form, Johnson-Arbor notes, chlorine in its gas form is poisonous and can be fatal at high enough concentrations.
“It’s it is a very common call that we get a poison control,” says Johnson-Arbor. According to the America's Poison Center's National Poison Data System annual report, there were 4,800 single-substance exposures to chlorine gas (defined as mixing a household acid product with bleach) called into U.S. poison centers in 2021, says Johnson-Arbor.
“Typically a lot of the exposures that we see at poison control skew towards pediatric patients, but this is one where the majority of cases are in adults and the majority of cases are unintentional,” says Johnson-Arbor. In other words, it's often a result of well-intentioned and unaware adults trying to clean, she adds.
"We've seen certainly from 2018 through 2021 a rise in the number of exposures occurring from mixing cleaners and it peaked in 2021,' Kaitlyn Brown, PharmD, clinical managing director of America’s Poison Centers, tells TODAY.com. "One can assume it was probably associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, people being in the home more and trying to be cleanly and disinfect surfaces," Brown says.
So if you've made this mistake, you're definitely not alone. Here's what happens if you do inhale chlorine gas.
What are the health risks of inhaling chlorine gas?
When you inhale chlorine gas, it enters the respiratory tract. "Chlorine is very water soluble ... and we have a lot of moisture in our respiratory tract, so in your mouth, throat and lungs, there is water," says Johnson-Arbor, adding that the eyes and any other mucus membranes will also be exposed to chlorine gas.
When chlorine gas comes into contact with these moist tissues, it produces hydrochloric acid and hypochlorous acid, says Johnson-Arbor, which are significant irritants to the lungs and airways. In severe cases, the acid can permanently damage these tissues, per the CDC.
The typical symptoms of chlorine gas exposure are coughing, irritation or burning in the throat, nose and eyes, difficulty breathing, watery eyes and chest tightness, the experts note.
"In some cases, you might have some dizziness or nausea and vomiting, as well," says Johnson-Arbor, adding that those who have a history of asthma may start wheezing. These can begin immediately after exposure or be delayed, she adds.
The severity of symptoms will depend on the concentration of the chlorine gas, the length time a person was exposed, the surrounding ventilation and other factors.
Symptoms can also vary based on the individual, so people who have underlying lung disease, such as asthma, may be more sensitive to the effects, says Johnson-Arbor.
“There have been cases of people who became very ill and had to be hospitalized for more than a week after mixing bleach with with vinegar," says Johnson-Arbor. In severe cases, a person can develop a buildup of fluid in the lungs, which can be fatal, per the CDC.
However, severe medical outcomes and death from this type of exposure are still very rare, adds Brown.
According to data on chlorine gas exposures in the U.S. between 2018 and 2021, 81% of exposures could be managed outside of a health care facility or at home, says Brown. Only 13% of patients were treated at the emergency room, and 1.3% were admitted to the hospital for further care, Brown adds. "There was only 1 death reported in an adult during this time frame," says Brown.
“People who are young and otherwise healthy can most likely just get out into a well-ventilated area, and their symptoms should go away pretty quickly," says Johnson-Arbor.
What to you do if you accidentally mix vinegar and bleach?
The most important thing to do is to get yourself and everyone else out of the area and move to fresh air, the experts note. "Before you go back into the area, make sure that it's thoroughly ventilated so open the windows and door to let the fresh air come in," says Johnson-Arbor, adding that the gas will dissipate in the ambient air.
People who get into fresh air should start to feel better within 10 to 15 minutes, Johnson-Arbor adds. "Typically, those symptoms resolve within the hour and you don't need to seek further care," says Brown.
If the typical symptoms — coughing, irritation of the throat or eyes, etc — do not resolve or become more severe, a person should seek medical attention immediately or go to the emergency room, says Johnson-Arbor.
During any point after exposure, people can also contact poison control if they have questions or concerns, the experts emphasize. Call 1.800.222.1222 to speak with a poison expert or visit PoisonHelp.org for support and resources, says Brown.
Once symptoms resolve and the area is well-ventilated, you can dispose of the bleach and vinegar mixture by dumping it down the drain, the experts note.
How to stay safe when using household cleaners
A good rule of thumb? Read the label carefully and follow the instructions. “People should only use cleaning products as directed on the package label, and only for the way that they’re meant to be used,” says Johnson-Arbor.
"A blanket statement is don’t mix bleach with other household chemicals," says Brown, adding that mixing bleach and ammonia can release another type of poisonous gas into the home.
If bleach is mixed with other acid-containing household cleaners — such as toilet bowl cleaners, and certain drain and tub cleaners — this will also release chlorine gas, says Johnson-Arbor.
People should also try to increase ventilation and improve air flow as much as possible while cleaning with strong chemicals, Johnson-Arbor adds, especially if it's an enclosed space like a bathroom.
"Staying in an enclosed area without adequate ventilation can make symptoms much worse because you're basically giving yourself a continued exposure to the chemicals," says Johnson-Arbor.
Finally, it's important for parents to store cleaning products well out of reach of children. This means storing cleaning products in locked areas if possible, Johnson-Arbor adds, and definitely not on the floor or under the sink where children can get into them.