September 16, 2012

How Does Silver Nitrate Cauterize?

Silver nitrate is a chemical compound commonly used by ENT surgeons to stop nosebleeds as well as obliterate granulation tissue (found around tracheostomy stomas as well as intra-orally).

Medical silver nitrate is typically purchased as matchstick applicators and is usually found in combination with potassium nitrate (75% silver nitrate and 25% potassium nitrate).

When this applicator is combined with water (moisture inside the nose or blood):

AgNO3 + HOH  -->  AgOH + HNO3

Nitric acid (HNO3) is produced along with an insoluble precipitate silver hydroxide (AgOH) which produces the characteristic brownish-white discoloration that can stain clothing as well as skin.

Nitric acid also known as aqua fortis and spirit of niter, is a highly corrosive strong mineral acid and is what initiates the biologic "cauterization" action. It is also what causes a patient to feel a burning sensation when applied.

Silver nitrate applicator sticks can occasionally be found on

Fauquier blog
Fauquier ENT

Dr. Christopher Chang is a private practice otolaryngology, head & neck surgeon specializing in the treatment of problems related to the ear, nose, and throat. Located in Warrenton, VA about 45 minutes west of Washington DC, he also provides inhalant allergy testing/treatment, hearing tests, and dispenses hearing aids.

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