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What is Cyanide?



Cyanide is a chemical compound that consists of a carbon atom (C) bonded to a nitrogen atom (N). It is a highly toxic and potentially lethal substance that can interfere with the body’s ability to use oxygen, leading to severe health effects. Cyanide can be found in various forms, including hydrogen cyanide (HCN), sodium cyanide (NaCN), and potassium cyanide (KCN).

Cyanide is known for its extreme toxicity, and it acts by binding to enzymes in cells that are essential for oxygen utilisation in cellular respiration. This interference with oxygen metabolism can have rapid and harmful effects on the body’s tissues and organs, particularly the brain and heart.

Cyanide poisoning can occur through inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact with cyanide-containing compounds. Exposure to even small amounts of cyanide can lead to symptoms such as rapid breathing, confusion, seizures, and, in severe cases, loss of consciousness and death.

Cyanide is used in various industrial applications, such as gold and silver mining, as well as in chemical manufacturing. It is also known for its use in certain types of chemical weapons.

Due to its extreme toxicity, the handling and use of cyanide compounds are tightly regulated in most countries, and strict safety measures are in place to prevent accidents and exposure. In the context of food, the cyanide content in foods like almonds, cassava, and other plant-based foods is typically very low and not a significant health concern when consumed in moderation and properly prepared.

Forms of Cyanide Compound

Hydrogen cyanide (HCN), sodium cyanide (NaCN), and potassium cyanide (KCN) are all forms of cyanide compounds, which consist of a carbon atom (C) bonded to a nitrogen atom (N) and are highly toxic. Here is a brief overview of each:

  1. Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN):
    • HCN is a colourless and highly toxic gas with a bitter almond odour, which is often associated with the smell of bitter almonds.
    • It is a chemical compound composed of one carbon atom, one hydrogen atom, and one nitrogen atom (HCN).
    • HCN is extremely toxic due to its ability to interfere with cellular respiration, preventing the body from using oxygen, and can lead to rapid and severe health effects, including death.
    • HCN has industrial applications, such as in fumigation and chemical manufacturing. It is also known for its use as a chemical weapon.
  2. Sodium Cyanide (NaCN):
    • Sodium cyanide is a white, crystalline, water-soluble compound made up of sodium (Na) and cyanide (CN) ions.
    • It is commonly used in various industrial applications, including gold and silver mining, as it helps in extracting precious metals from ores.
    • Sodium cyanide is highly toxic and poses serious health risks if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin.
  3. Potassium Cyanide (KCN):
    • Potassium cyanide is a similar compound to sodium cyanide but contains potassium (K) instead of sodium.
    • It is also used in gold and silver mining and other industrial processes for its ability to assist in metal extraction.
    • Like sodium cyanide, potassium cyanide is extremely toxic and can have lethal effects if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed.

Both sodium cyanide and potassium cyanide release hydrogen cyanide when they come into contact with water or acid, which is the primary toxic component. These compounds are tightly regulated and require strict safety measures to prevent accidental exposure due to their extreme toxicity.

It’s essential to emphasise that these compounds should be handled with extreme caution and in accordance with strict safety protocols when used in industrial processes. They should never be used or handled without proper training and safety equipment due to the severe health risks they pose.

Cyanide Poisoning

Cyanide poisoning occurs when the body is exposed to cyanide. As stated earlier cyanide is a highly toxic chemical compound that interferes with the body’s ability to use oxygen for energy production. Cyanide poisoning can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. There are various ways in which cyanide poisoning can occur:

  1. Inhalation: Breathing in hydrogen cyanide gas (HCN) is one of the most common forms of cyanide poisoning. This can happen through industrial accidents, chemical exposure, or even in cases of deliberate self-harm.
  2. Ingestion: Swallowing substances that contain cyanide, such as cyanide salts (sodium or potassium cyanide) or certain foods that contain cyanogenic glycosides (e.g., bitter almonds or improperly prepared cassava).
  3. Skin Contact: Cyanide can be absorbed through the skin when handling cyanide-containing compounds. Occupational exposure to cyanides in certain industrial settings can lead to skin absorption.

Symptoms of cyanide poisoning can manifest rapidly and include:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Respiratory distress
  • Low blood pressure
  • Cardiac arrest

Cyanide poisoning is a medical emergency, and treatment typically involves administering an antidote, such as sodium thiosulfate or hydroxocobalamin, which helps to detoxify the cyanide. In some cases, oxygen therapy and other supportive measures may be necessary to stabilise the individual.

Preventing cyanide poisoning involves taking safety precautions when working with cyanide-containing substances, following proper food preparation methods, and avoiding exposure to potentially toxic sources. Occupational safety regulations and guidelines are in place to protect workers from cyanide exposure in industrial settings.

Case Report

Title: MR Changes after Acute Cyanide
Authors: Johanna Rachinger, Franz A. Fellner, Karl Stieglbauer and
Summary: We describe MR changes that occurred 3 and 6 weeks after a suicide attempt with cyanide. The toxicity of cyanide causes damage, primarily to the basal ganglia, and those changes were visible as altered signal intensity on the first MR images. Extensive areas of hemorrhagic necrosis were seen 6 weeks later. Our case shows pseudolaminar necrosis along the central cerebral cortex 3 weeks after cyanide poisoning, showing that the sensorimotor cortex is also a site for toxic necrosis because of its high oxygen dependency.

MR images - Cyanide poisoning
Follow-up MR images obtained 3 weeks after cyanide poisoning.A, Fluid-attenuated inversion recovery (9000/110 [TR/TE]) image. Discrete hyperintense linear signals can be seen along the sensorimotor cortex.B, T1-weighted (550/14) image obtained before the administration of contrast agent.C, T1-weighted (715/17) image obtained after the administration of contrast agent. Massive contrast enhancement can be seen along the central region, consistent with pseudolaminar necrosis.D, Fluid-attenuated inversion recovery (9000/110) image. Discrete hyperintense signals can be seen in the caudate nuclei bilaterally.E, Unenhanced T1-weighted (550/14) image shows hyperintense signals in the caudate nuclei bilaterally, consistent with hemorrhage.F, T1-weighted (715/17) image obtained after administration of contrast agent. Massive contrast enhancement can be seen in the lentiform nuclei and the caudate nuclei bilaterally.
Follow-up MR images obtained 6 weeks after cyanide poisoning.A and B, T2-weighted (2660/90) images. The hyperintense signal changes in the basal ganglia are considerably more pronounced.C and D, T1-weighted (550/14) unenhanced images. Hemorrhagic necrosis can be seen in the sensorimotor cortex (C) and the basal ganglia (D).E and F, T1-weighted (715/17) images obtained after administration of contrast agent. Pronounced contrast enhancement can be seen along the central cortex (E) and the basal ganglia (F).

MR Changes after Acute Cyanide Intoxication

Cyanide poisoning


Johanna Rachinger, Franz A. Fellner, Karl Stieglbauer and Johannes Trenkler – MR Changes after Acute Cyanide Intoxication: 2002, 23 (8) 1398-1401
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):
Cyanide fact sheet – John Hopkins University:
Cyanide – ScienceDirect:
Cyanide Toxity – National Library of Medicine:

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