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Poisoning

Topic Overview

A poison is a substance that has toxic effects and may injure you or make you sick if you are exposed to it. Poisons can be found everywhere, from simple household cleaners to cosmetics to houseplants to industrial chemicals. Even medicines that are taken in the wrong dose, at the wrong time, or by the wrong person can cause a toxic effect. Poisonous substances can hurt you if they are swallowed, inhaled, spilled on your skin, or splashed in your eyes. In most cases, any product that gives off fumes or is an aerosol that can be inhaled should be considered a possible poison. More than 90% of poisonings occur in the home.

Young children have the highest risk of poisoning because of their natural curiosity. More than half of poisonings in children occur in those who are younger than age 6. Some children will swallow just about anything, including unappetizing substances that are poisonous. When in doubt, assume the worst. Always believe a child or a witness, such as another child or a brother or sister, who reports that poison has been swallowed. Many poisonings occur when an adult who is using a poisonous product around children becomes distracted by the doorbell, a telephone, or some other interruption.

Teenagers also have an increased risk of poisonings, both accidental and intentional, because of their risk-taking behavior. Some teens experiment with poisonous substances such as by sniffing toxic glues or inhaling aerosol substances to get "high." About half of all poisonings in teens are classified as suicide attempts, which always requires medical evaluation.

Adults—especially older adults—are at risk for accidental and intentional poisonings from:

  • Alcohol and illegal drugs. For more information, see the topic Alcohol and Drug Problems.
  • Gas leaks, such as exhaust leaks from heaters and stoves and automobile exhaust. For more information, see the topic Carbon Monoxide Poisoning.
  • Medicines, such as acetaminophen, antibiotics, cough and cold remedies, vitamins, pain relievers, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers.
  • Household cleaning supplies and other substances, such as cosmetics, antifreeze, windshield cleaner, gardening products, and paint thinners.
  • Herbal products.

If a poisoning was intentional, call your local suicide hotline or the national suicide hotline 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255 for help.

Symptoms of poisonings

The symptoms of a suspected poisoning may vary depending on the person's age, the type of poisonous substance, the amount of poison involved, and how much time has passed since the poisoning occurred. Some common symptoms that might point to a poisoning include:

  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Cramps.
  • Throat pain.
  • Drooling.
  • Sudden sleepiness, confusion, or decreased alertness.
  • Anxiousness, nervousness, irritability, or tremors.
  • Seizures.
  • Substance residue or burn around the mouth, teeth, eyes, or on the skin.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Headache.

Poison control centers, hospitals, or your doctor can give immediate advice in the case of a poisoning. The United States National Poison Control Hotline phone number is 1-800-222-1222. Have the poison container with you so you can give complete information to the poison control center, such as what the poison or substance is, how much was taken and when. Do not try to make the person vomit. If your poison control center recommends vomiting for a specific substance, follow their guidelines.

Check Your Symptoms

Do you have a concern about a possible poisoning or a poisonous substance?
Yes
Concern about a possible poisoning
No
Concern about a possible poisoning
How old are you?
Less than 12 years
Less than 12 years
12 years or older
12 years or older
Are you male or female?
Male
Male
Female
Female
Do you have a heat or chemical burn to the eye?
Yes
Heat or chemical burn to eye
No
Heat or chemical burn to eye
Have you swallowed or inhaled something that might be poisonous?
Yes
Ingested known or suspected poison
No
Ingested known or suspected poison
Are you having trouble breathing (more than a stuffy nose)?
Yes
Difficulty breathing more than a stuffy nose
No
Difficulty breathing more than a stuffy nose
Did you pass out completely (lose consciousness)?
Yes
Lost consciousness
No
Lost consciousness
If you are answering for someone else: Is the person unconscious now?
(If you are answering this question for yourself, say no.)
Yes
Unconscious now
No
Unconscious now
Are you back to your normal level of alertness?
After passing out, it's normal to feel a little confused, weak, or lightheaded when you first wake up or come to. But unless something else is wrong, these symptoms should pass pretty quickly and you should soon feel about as awake and alert as you normally do.
Yes
Has returned to normal after loss of consciousness
No
Has returned to normal after loss of consciousness
Do you have symptoms of shock?
Yes
Symptoms of shock
No
Symptoms of shock
Have you had a seizure?
Yes
Seizure
No
Seizure
Have you noticed a change in behavior that might be related to the poisoning?
Yes
Change in behavior
No
Change in behavior
Is the behavior change becoming more severe?
Yes
Behavior problem is worsening
No
Behavior problem is worsening

Changes in behavior that can be caused by poisoning can include:

  • Becoming increasingly sleepy and having trouble staying awake.
  • Feeling restless, edgy, and angry for no reason.
  • Feeling confused and not thinking clearly.
  • Feeling very anxious or afraid for no reason.

Shock is a life-threatening condition that may occur quickly after a sudden illness or injury.

Symptoms of shock in a child may include:

  • Passing out.
  • Being very sleepy or hard to wake up.
  • Not responding when being touched or talked to.
  • Breathing much faster than usual.
  • Acting confused. The child may not know where he or she is.

Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:

  • Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
  • Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
  • Medicines you take. Certain medicines, herbal remedies, and supplements can cause symptoms or make them worse.
  • Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
  • Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.

Try Home Treatment

You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.

  • Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
  • Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.

Shock is a life-threatening condition that may quickly occur after a sudden illness or injury.

Symptoms of shock (most of which will be present) include:

  • Passing out.
  • Feeling very dizzy or lightheaded, like you may pass out.
  • Feeling very weak or having trouble standing.
  • Not feeling alert or able to think clearly. You may be confused, restless, fearful, or unable to respond to questions.

Seek Care Today

Call the local poison control center, the National Poison Control Hotline (1-800-222-1222), or your doctor today for more information.

Seek Care Now

Based on your answers, you may need care right away.

  • Call the local poison control center or the National Poison Control Hotline (1-800-222-1222) now, before you do anything else. The poison control center will tell you exactly what to do.
  • If possible, have the poison's container with you when you call. The information on the container may be helpful to the poison control center.
  • If you cannot reach a poison control center by phone, go to the nearest emergency room.

Call 911 Now

Based on your answers, you need emergency care.

Call 911 or other emergency services now.

Symptoms of difficulty breathing can range from mild to severe. For example:

  • You may feel a little out of breath but still be able to talk (mild difficulty breathing), or you may be so out of breath that you cannot talk at all (severe difficulty breathing).
  • It may be getting hard to breathe with activity (mild difficulty breathing), or you may have to work very hard to breathe even when you’re at rest (severe difficulty breathing).
Burns to the Eye

Home Treatment

First aid home treatment measures for suspected poisoning

Call a poison control center, hospital, or doctor immediately. The United States National Poison Control Hotline phone number is 1-800-222-1222. Have the poison container with you so you can give complete information to the poison control center. Do not try to make the person vomit. If your poison control center recommends vomiting for a specific substance, follow their guidelines.

The poison control center will be able to help you quickly if you have the following information ready:

  • Your name and phone number
  • The name, age, weight, and health status of the person who has been poisoned
  • Type of product. Read the brand name as it is written on the label. Include the list of ingredients and the company name and contact number, if it is available on the label.
  • Amount of product involved in poisoning
  • Type of poison exposure—swallowed, inhaled, or in contact with the eyes or skin
  • Time of poisoning
  • Whether the person vomited
  • Any first aid measures taken
  • Your location and how far you are from an emergency medical facility

If the poison control center recommends medical evaluation, take the product container or substance and any stomach contents that the person vomited to help doctors determine the seriousness of the poisoning.

Note:

Do not use syrup of ipecac. It is no longer used to treat poisonings. If you have syrup of ipecac in your home, call your pharmacist for instructions on how to dispose of it and throw away the container. Do not store anything else in the container.

Symptoms to watch for during home treatment

Follow the instructions you received from your doctor or the poison control center about seeking medical evaluation. Call your doctor if any of the following occurs during home treatment:

  • New symptoms develop.
  • Symptoms do not go away as expected.
  • Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.

Prevention

About 80% of poisonings occur in children ages 1 to 4 years. Develop poison prevention habits early, before your child is crawling. Babies grow so fast that sometimes they are crawling and walking before you have time to protect them.

General tips

  • Never leave a poisonous product unattended around children, even for a moment. Many poisonings occur when an adult who is using a poisonous product becomes distracted by the doorbell, a telephone, or some other interruption.
  • Be aware of common substances that are poisonous, such as houseplants and cosmetics.
  • Use childproof latches on your cupboards.
  • Keep products in their original containers. Never store poisonous products in food containers.
  • Never leave alcohol within sight or reach of a child.
  • Read product labels for caution statements, how to use the product correctly, and first aid instructions.
  • Keep the number of your local poison control center near your phone.
  • Talk with your doctor about including activated charcoal in your first aid supplies at home. Activated charcoal reduces the toxic effect of some poisons.

Household poisons

  • Do not keep poisons such as drain cleaner, oven cleaner, or plant food under your kitchen sink. Keep them out of the sight and reach of children. Dishwasher detergent is especially dangerous.
  • Have your home tested for levels of lead if any older leaded paints may still be present. For more information, see the topic Lead Poisoning.
  • Some house or garden plants and the chemicals used to care for them (such as fertilizers) can be poisonous if ingested. Be sure to teach your children not to play with them.

Alcohol

  • Keep alcohol out of the sight and reach of children.
  • Educate your children about the effects of alcohol and medicines. Encourage your teenager to avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Provide nonalcoholic beverages at parties and meals. Don't give your children the impression that adults need to drink alcohol in order to have a good time.

Medicines

  • Put all medicines and vitamins out of the sight and reach of children. Acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, is a common source of childhood poisoning.
  • Never call medicines "candy."
  • Keep medicines in their original labeled containers.
  • Buy nonprescription medicines in child-resistant packages.
  • Try to take medicines out of the sight of children.
  • Do not regularly use medicines to sleep, lose weight, or relax. Try to find nondrug solutions. For more information, see the topic Sleep Problems, Age 12 and Older.
  • Check the label on the bottle each time you take a medicine to make sure you're taking the correct one.
  • Check the expiration dates on medicines. If your medicines are expired or no longer needed, call your pharmacist for instructions on how to dispose of them.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor treat poisoning by being prepared to answer the following questions. Be sure to bring the poisonous substance with you.

  • What substance do you suspect was involved?
  • When did the poisoning occur?
  • Was the substance swallowed, inhaled, spilled on the skin, or splashed in the eyes?
  • Have you ever been treated for a poisoning in the past? What was the substance? How long ago? How was the poisoning treated?
  • How much of the substance was involved?
  • What symptoms are present?
  • How long have symptoms been present?
  • Have you called a poison control center? What advice did they give? Did it work?
  • What home treatment measures have been tried?
  • Have any nonprescription medicines been taken? What effect did they have?
  • What prescription and nonprescription medicines do you take?
  • Were alcohol or drugs involved in the poisoning?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised August 15, 2013

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