A blister agent, or vesicant, is a chemical compound that causes severe skin, eye and mucosal pain and irritation. They are named for their ability to cause severe chemical burns, resulting in painful water blisters on the bodies of those affected. Although the term is often used in connection with large-scale burns caused by chemical spills or chemical warfare agents, some naturally occurring substances such as cantharidin are also blister-producing agents (vesicants). Furanocoumarin, another naturally occurring substance, causes vesicant-like effects indirectly, for example, by increasing skin photosensitivity greatly. Vesicants have medical uses including wart removal but can be fatal if even small amounts are ingested.
Most blister agents fall into one of three groups:
Exposure to a weaponized blister agent can cause a number of life-threatening symptoms, including:
All blister agents currently known are denser than air, and are readily absorbed through the eyes, lungs, and skin. Effects of the two mustard agents are typically delayed: exposure to vapors becomes evident in 4 to 6 hours, and skin exposure in 2 to 48 hours. The effects of Lewisite are immediate.