What is poisoning?

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Poisoning: Overview

A poison is a substance that has toxic effects. It 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. That's because they're naturally curious. 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 gets distracted by the doorbell, a phone, or some other interruption.

Young children are also at high risk for accidental poisoning from nonprescription and prescription medicines. Medicine bottles are packaged to prevent a child from opening them. But be sure to keep all medicines away from where children can reach them.

Teens also have an increased risk of poisonings, both accidental and intentional, because of their risk-taking behavior. Some teens experiment with poisonous substances. They may sniff toxic glues or inhale aerosol substances to get "high." About half of all poisonings in teens are classified as suicide attempts. They always require medical care.

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

  • Alcohol and illegal drugs.
  • Gas leaks. These include exhaust leaks from heaters and stoves and automobile exhaust.
  • Medicines, such as acetaminophen, antibiotics, cough and cold remedies, vitamins, pain relievers, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers.
  • Household cleaning supplies and other substances. Examples are cosmetics, antifreeze, windshield cleaner, gardening products, and paint thinners.
  • Herbal products.

Symptoms of poisonings

The symptoms of a suspected poisoning may vary. They depend 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, grouchiness, or tremors.
  • Seizures.
  • Substance residue or burn around the mouth, teeth, or eyes, or on the skin.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • A headache.

In the case of a poisoning, a poison control center, a hospital, or your doctor can give you advice right away on what to do. 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.

What are some common household items that can cause poisoning?

Here are some common items found at home that can cause poisoning.

  • Prescription and over-the-counter medicines
  • Cosmetics, nail care products, and perfumes
  • Arts and crafts products, such as glue
  • Bleach, dishwasher detergent, detergent pods, drain and toilet bowl cleaners, furniture polish, and other cleaning products
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Windshield washer fluid and antifreeze
  • Turpentine products, kerosene, lye, lighter fluid, and paint thinners and solvents
  • Garden products, especially products that kill insects, pests, or weeds
  • Batteries and mothballs
  • Edible marijuana and vape products

What first aid steps should you take if you suspect a poisoning?

First aid measures for suspected poisoning

Call a poison control center, hospital, or doctor right away. 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. They have guidelines on what treatments are needed for all types of poisons.

Do not try to make the person vomit. And 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. Don't store anything else in the container. Activated charcoal is also not used at home to treat poisonings.

The poison control center will be able to help you quickly if you have this 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's written on the label. Include the list of ingredients and the company name and contact number, if it's 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 find out how serious the poisoning is.

If you think the poisoning is intentional

If a poisoning was intentional, get help.

Where to get help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

If you or someone you know talks about suicide, self-harm, a mental health crisis, a substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress, get help right away. You can:

  • Call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
  • Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
  • Text HOME to 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line.

Consider saving these numbers in your phone.

Go to 988lifeline.org for more information or to chat online.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.

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