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What is the difference between acute and chronic chemical exposure?

By Jessica Barrett | Last updated: December 28, 2018

Chemical exposure of any kind can be dangerous. Generally, there are three routes of exposure through which a toxic substance can enter the body:

  • Inhalation (breathing)
  • Direct contact (touching)
  • Ingestion (swallowing)

The length of time of the exposure is what determines whether it qualifies as chronic or acute. Although acute exposure is shorter term, both types of exposure can cause serious health effects (learn about 5 Essential Exposure Limit Terms Worth Knowing).

Acute Chemical Exposure

Acute exposure is short-term exposure to a chemical, lasting anywhere from seconds to hours at a time. Health effects show up immediately or soon after the exposure and can range from minor irritations to far more serious impacts such as eye damage or loss of consciousness.


Chronic Chemical Exposure

Chronic exposure refers to continued or repeated exposure to a toxic substance like lead or PCBs over a long period of time (months or years), often from chemicals that are used daily (read about The Top 4 Pathways for Chemical Exposure). The effects of chronic exposure can take years to become apparent and are, in many instances, permanent.

Note that some chemicals may cause both acute and chronic symptoms. For example, exposure to a vapor may make you immediately dizzy (an acute effect), while over the long-term it could cause damage to the liver (a chronic effect).

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Written by Jessica Barrett

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Jessica is a freelance writer and editor from Toronto, Canada. She specializes in creating content for nonprofits and has written for organizations working in human rights, conservation, education, and health care. She loves traveling and food, speaks Spanish, and has two dogs, one of whom she rescued while living in Mexico.

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