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What is Antifreeze Poisoning?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Antifreeze poisoning is a very serious illness that occurs when people or animals consume antifreeze that contains ethylene glycol. Most cases are seen in dogs and cats, but this can also occur in humans, most classically in curious children who drink antifreeze because it tastes sweet. People and pets who consume antifreeze need immediate medical attention and prompt intervention, or they will die.

Ethylene glycol has a naturally sweet flavor, which makes the taste of engine coolant appealing. Animals may lap up antifreeze because they like the flavor or because they are thirsty, and because animals are extremely sensitive to the chemical, they can even die from licking antifreeze off their paws after walking through a puddle of it. Children are also very sensitive to it, especially if they are small. If consumption of antifreeze is suspected, the patient should be taken for immediate testing and medical care.

The poisoning is caused by the metabolism of ethylene glycol in the liver, which breaks the chemical down into dangerous compounds that interfere with the function of the central nervous system. In the early stages, antifreeze poisoning causes a drunken appearance, which slowly develops into more serious symptoms, including vomiting, frequent urination, extreme thirst, confusion, dizziness, listlessness, convulsions, abdominal tenderness, and eventual death.

Even when the poisoning is caught and treated successfully, it can cause long term damage to the kidneys and the extremities. Some animals who have survived have lost extremities such as ears and limbs because the damage from the poisoning has been so extensive. Antifreeze poisoning can also cause brain damage.

Treatment relies on getting the ingested antifreeze out of the body. Vomiting is sometimes induced, and patients can also be given drugs that will inhibit the metabolism of ethylene glycol in the liver. In fact, one of the best treatments is regular ethanol. In addition, hemodialysis may be used to clean the blood.

People should be very careful when handling engine coolant, and they should avoid leaving even small spills. When coolant is changed, it should be collected in a container that can be sealed and disposed of, and any spills should be wiped up or washed away. People can substantially reduce the risks by using coolant with a bittering agent that makes the antifreeze unpalatable, or by using antifreeze made with propylene glycol, which is not nearly as toxic. Confining children and animals so that they cannot ingest antifreeze when they roam is also advisable.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon288744 — On Aug 31, 2012

Ethylene glycol: scary words with a serious outcome for pets, people and the environment. The antifreeze business is never going to stop making this amazing coolant that is very toxic and dangerous to the world. It's all about money, I'm afraid.

It's hard to change people's point of view unless something bad happens to them or their loved ones. There is this product out on the market that it's very environmentally friendly. It's a maintenance program and if you follow it, you won't ever have to flash again.

Instead of having this huge bottle around the house, this product is for your cooling system and it's a six ounce bottle with no ethylene glycol. No more flashing is a very scary word for the antifreeze business, but so is ethylene glycol when it comes down to our family, pets and environment. It's called VR-12. I'm a tech for an animal hospital.

For a guy, I don't know much about cars, but I want to keep everyone safe.

By anon243862 — On Jan 30, 2012

My rabbit bit through a cold pack that contained glycol. I grabbed it off him before he could ingest any of it, but I'm not sure if any was taken in. how much does it take to kill a small rabbit?

By anon172420 — On May 03, 2011

my name is brendan. my young brother age three has just been rushed to the hospital. he has suspected to have drunk anti freeze. what's going to happen. will someone tell me please?

By anon128363 — On Nov 19, 2010

as a small child of five or six i was swimming in a tank of antifreeze did not know but i am wondering if my balance issues are related due to neurological issues. i am also having a hard time with left and right and mixing up sentences. do you know what the long term effects are in a case like mine.

I have always been able to function but i notice i have to check my work. it is like my brain freezes or seizures.

By anon93005 — On Jul 01, 2010

dude, don't wait. take them all to the vet and have them checked out.

By anon44122 — On Sep 04, 2009

can a human get anti-freeze poison by smelling anti-freeze over a long period of time?

By rickhawrylak — On Jun 21, 2009

I have three dogs:

#1. Lady 1.5 years 1/2 Lab 1/2 Colly 65 lbs.

#2. Val 8 years 100% Lab 75 lbs.

#3. Decota (male) 13 years 1/2 Rot 1/2 ? 80 lbs.

This Thursday morning my wife and I get up at about 5:00am and Lady did not get up for her Dog Bone treat. I had to help her up from our bedroom and she acted drunk or semi-paralyzed. She ate her Dog Bone and at 8:00am she ate her one cup of Dried Dog food the same are the other two dogs.

She did walk outside at 8:30am but seemed tired and kind of weak. We both went to work and my wife got home a 4:00pm and she seemed back to about 90% of norm. I got home at 5:00pm and she was maybe at 95% and then I fed all three dogs at 5:45pm one cup dried and split one can of meat dog food.

At 6:00pm our 8 year old Lab could not get up. This was about 12-14 hours later but it seemed to be the same as Lady acted. I carried her to our bathroom that night and put her on her pillow. At 2:00am in the morning I checked on her and she seems like she was in a coma and hard to wake up.

At 6:00am she got up but very slowly and ate her Dog Bone and at 8:00am ate as well. She was now back to about 90% of normal.

I called our Vet and gave the details to the lady at the office and she said she would relay all of this to our Vet. We live on a large wooded lot and our dogs have 100% in and out capability through a doggy door. I was thinking some kind of berry or plant that the dogs might have eaten caused this problem.

The Vet called back and said it could be antifreeze poisoning and if they seemed OK fine, but if they change bring them in. I added Antifreeze to my truck's overflow tank and some to the radiator about a week ago. Some might have boiled over last Wed. night and dripped on the concrete drive but this might explain what has happened if they licked at the spill, but at a 12 hours difference in time.

What should I do now even if they seem normal now that it has been over 4 days for Lady and 3 days for Val and they seem normal? I have not seen any signs of problems, but what should I look to happen if they have some long term problem? What can I do?

Regards, Rick

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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