Cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC) is a chemical that destroys or cleanses harmful bacteria from organic surfaces. It is often found in various oral sprays, mouthwashes, and lozenges, as well as some other types of surface disinfectants. The human throat, nostrils, and mouth are lined by mucous membranes, which can absorb an array of potentially harmful germs, chemicals and viruses. An antiseptic such as cetylpyridinium chloride can permeate the mucous membranes and potentially inhibit the growth and spread of these infectious substances.
Microorganisms that irritate and multiply in moist tissues are generally airborne, though they can be transmitted through contact with various foods, drinks, or items introduced to the mouth or nose such as straws or fingers. Infection symptoms in mucous membranes often include inflammation, discoloration, or foul odor. In the mouth and nose, these symptoms can also manifest as plaque on teeth, gingivitis around the gums, sore throat, or sinus infections.
CPC uses lymph — the fluid found between the cells — to travel through layers of skin and disrupt the membranes of smaller infectious organisms, which have fewer cells than human tissue. In small doses, cetylpyridinium chloride, along with some other chemicals, is able to kill the harmful bacteria without causing permanent damage to the affected tissue. Small amounts of this chemical are often included in many oral care products, such as mouthwashes, toothpastes, lozenges, and various sore throat treatment sprays.
It is not uncommon for rashes, skin irritation, nausea, or bleeding to occur when using CPC in large quantities. Many symptoms of overexposure to cetylpyridinium chloride can mirror the symptoms of the bacteria that initially infected the area. Further examples of possible damage can include brownish discolorations on teeth, epidermal swelling in areas exposed to the chemical, prolonged numbness, burning sensations, and trouble breathing. Other, far more serious symptoms can include ulcers in the mouth or throat, permanent lung damage, convulsions, and paralysis.
In its purest form, cetylpyridinium chloride is a fine white powder without taste or odor, which can be lethal if inhaled or ingested. In addition to its toxicity, the chemical is combustible and should be kept away from sources of heat or areas where sparks might be present. Some cleaning products, shampoos, and fabric softeners might also contain CPC. To properly handle any product containing CPC, always read and follow directions included on the packaging. Gloves or masks should be used to prevent or minimize skin contact when indicated.