Poisoning

What is poisoning?

Poison is any substance that is harmful to your body. Many different types of poison exist. Poisonous substances can be products you have in your house. Medicines that aren’t taken as directed can be harmful. There are several ways you can be exposed to poison. You could breathe it in, swallow it, or absorb it through your skin. Poisoning can be an accident or a planned action.

Symptoms of poisoning

The effects of poisoning depend on the substance, amount, and type of contact. Your age, weight, and state of health also affect your symptoms.

Possible symptoms of poisoning include:

  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • rash
  • redness or sores around the mouth
  • dry mouth
  • drooling or foaming at the mouth
  • trouble breathing
  • dilated pupils (bigger than normal) or constricted pupils (smaller than normal)
  • confusion
  • fainting
  • shaking or seizures.

What causes poisoning?

There are a number of substances that are harmful and can cause poisoning. These include:

  • household products and personal care products, like nail polish remover and mouthwash, which is harmful to children
  • cleaning products and detergents
  • paint thinner
  • pesticides and bug spray
  • lawn chemicals, such as herbicides, fertilizers, and fungicides
  • metals, such as lead
  • mercury, which can be found in old thermometers and batteries
  • prescription and over-the-counter medicines when combined or taken the wrong way
  • illegal drugs
  • carbon monoxide gas
  • spoiled food
  • plants, such as poison ivy and poison oak
  • venom from certain snakes and insects.

How is poisoning diagnosed?

The doctor can diagnose poisoning. First, they will review your medical history and do a physical exam. They also can perform tests to find the cause. Most poisons can be detected in your blood or urine. The doctor also can order a toxicology screen. This checks for common drugs using a urine or saliva sample.

Can poisoning be prevented or avoided?

The best way to prevent poisoning is to avoid contact with harmful substances. Below are some guidelines you should follow.

  • Keep all household substances out of the reach of children. You should put them in high or locked cabinets. This includes medicine, cleaning products, and other harmful chemicals. You also can childproof your house with safety locks and guards.
  • Wear protective clothing, like gloves, when you use cleaners and chemicals.
  • Avoid using pesticides, paint thinner, and similar chemicals inside the house or garage. Try to find non-chemical solutions. If you do use these chemicals inside, keep the area well aired.
  • Don’t mix chemicals. They may become poisonous when mixed. Bleach and ammonia are one example. When you mix them together, they create a deadly gas.
  • Keep medicines and chemicals in their original containers.
  • Label everything inside your medicine cabinet.
  • Get rid of old or expired medicines and household products. Dispose of them safely, per FDA and hazardous waste guidelines. Call poison control for more information.
  • Follow all product label directions.
  • Have all gas-, oil-, and wood-fueled appliances serviced regularly. Be sure they are well vented.
  • Never run your car in the garage, other than when you are coming or leaving.
  • Install a carbon monoxide detector in your home. Regularly test and replace the batteries.

Poisoning treatment

Treatment depends on the person and the type of poisoning. In this situation, try your best to stay calm. The first step is to get away from or remove the poison if you can. If the poison is in the air, move to a safe place with fresh air. If the poison is on the skin, rinse it off with water and remove nearby clothing. If the person swallowed the poison, do not try to induce vomiting. This approach is no longer recommended.

If the poisoned person is awake and alert, call the poison control center at 1-800-222-1222. You should have this number stored in your house and phone. Stay on the phone with the operator and follow all instructions. Try to have the following information ready:

  • the person’s age and weight
  • the person’s address
  • the type of poisonous substance they were exposed to
  • the time of the incident
  • a list of allergies that the person has.

Call 911 if the poisoned person is unconscious or not breathing. The medical team will provide additional treatment. They can use methods to get rid of the poison before it causes more harm. Some types of poison have antidotes. These work by reversing the poison’s effects and curing it. Treatment also includes measures to relieve symptoms.

Living with poisoning

The sooner you recognize poisoning symptoms, the better the outcome. However, the lasting effects of poisoning vary. It depends on the substance, amount, and type of exposure. Your age, weight, and state of health also affect your outcome. Poisoning can cause short-term effects, like a skin rash or brief illness. In serious cases, it can cause brain damage, a coma, or death.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • If my child swallows something poisonous, should I make them vomit to get rid of it?
  • Can I call the poison control center if I have a question, or is it for emergencies only?