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  • Misuse of hydrogen peroxide in a theatre environment

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    • Patients and public, Health and care staff, Patient safety leads, Researchers/academics

    Summary

    A tutor once told me that research means 'to search again'. I am always searching or, as someone told me recently, 'sleuthing' for knowledge to improve myself and then share with my colleagues. I would like to share with you my knowledge of hydrogen peroxide.

    Content

    During my many years of working in operating theatres, I observed that hydrogen peroxide was adopted by surgeons as a ritual for washing out wounds and deep cavities. 

    An entire bottle of 200 ml hydrogen peroxide was mixed with 200 ml of normal saline. It seems this ritual was passed down from consultant to trainee and it then became a habit.

    In a recent post on the hub, I mentioned that women in 1920 were given Lysol as a disinfectant to preserve their feminity and maritial bliss! Lysol contains hydrogen peroxide, so women were daily irrigating their vaginas with a harmful solution of fizz, unaware of the hazards. I believe it is still being used to colour hair, remove blood stains, as a mouthwash gargle and also to whiten teeth.

    Then suddenly a breakthrough!

    In 2014, in my email inbox, a yellow sticker warning appeared from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) regarding the use of hydrogen peroxide in deep cavities.

    So why did the MHRA ban the use of hydrogen peroxide in deep cavities? Hydrogen peroxide is contraindicated for use in closed body cavities or on deep or large wounds due to the risk of gas embolism. Hydrogen peroxide breaks down rapidly to water and oxygen on contact with tissues. If this reaction occurs in an enclosed space, the large amount of oxygen produced can cause gas embolism.[1]

    There has been several case reports that have been published from around the world of life threatening or fatal gas embolism with use of hydrogen peroxide in surgery, of which five were from the UK. Most of the global reports describe cardiorespiratory collapse occurring within seconds to minutes of instillation of hydrogen peroxide as wound irrigation or when used to soak swabs for wound packing. This was sometimes accompanied by features associated with excess gas generation such as surgical emphysema, pneumocephalus, aspiration of gas from central venous lines,  or the presence of gas bubbles on transoesophageal echocardiography. Non-fatal events were sometimes associated with permanent neurological damage such as neuro-vegetative state and hypoxic encephalopathy.[1]

    As the Practice Development Lead for the theatre department where I worked it was my role to pass on and act on the information received from the MHRA, so I discussed it with my very supportive theatre manager and then escalated to the theatre staff.

    But some consultants still ask for it today; it is always refused. So why do consultants request it when they are aware of the hazards?

    One theatre never event describes a syringe of hydrogen peroxide given to a consultant and injected into a joint instead of the required local anaesthetic![2] The patient survived but required care in the intensive care unit.

    As a scrub nurse practitioner this scares me.

    What about you?

    Would you now research this yellow sticker alert further, implement best practice and speak up, or would you just keep quiet and go "with the flow?"

    We all make mistakes, but learning from our errors will always be the ultimate key to improvement in healthcare and best practice and safety for our patients.

    References

    1. Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. Hydrogen peroxide: reminder of risk of gas embolism when used in surgery. 19 December 2014.

    2. Chung J and Jeong M. Oxygen embolism caused by accidental subcutaneous injection of hydrogen peroxide during orthopedic surgery. A case report. Medicine (Baltimore) 2017; 96(43): e8342.

    About the Author

    Theatre scrub nurse practitioner.

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