What is poison?
A poison is any substance that is harmful to your body. There are many different types of poison. Many poisonous substances are products you have around the house. Even medicines that aren’t taken as directed can be harmful.
Ways you can be exposed to poison include breathing it in, swallowing it or absorbing it through your skin.
What types of substances can be harmful?
Substances that could poison you include the following:
- Cleaning products
- Household products, such as nail polish remover and other personal care products
- Paint thinner
- Pesticides used in the house or in the yard
- Chemicals used in the yard, 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 drugs when combined or taken the wrong way
- Illegal drugs
- Carbon monoxide gas
- Contaminated food
- Plants, such as poison ivy and poison oak
- Venom from certain snakes and insects
What are the symptoms of poisoning?
The effects of poisoning depend on what substance you are exposed to, and the type and amount of exposure. Your age, your weight and how healthy you are can also affect your symptoms. Poisoning can cause short-term effects, like a skin rash or vomiting. In serious cases, it can cause brain damage, coma or death.
The following are some possible symptoms of poisoning:
- Redness or sores around the mouth
- Drooling or dry mouth
- Dilated pupils (pupils that are bigger than normal) or constricted pupils (pupils that are smaller than normal)
- Shaking or seizures
- Trouble breathing
- Unconsciousness (fainting)
How can I prevent poisoning?
The best way to guard against poisoning is to avoid exposure to harmful substances. The following are some tips:
- Keep all dangerous household substances in locked cabinets, out of the reach of children. Potentially dangerous substances include medicine, household cleaning products and anything containing harmful chemicals (such as nail polish remover and bug repellent). Childproofing your house with child safety locks and guards may be a good idea.
- Wear protective clothing (such as gloves) when using cleaners and chemicals.
- Avoid using pesticides, paint thinner or other chemicals inside the house or garage. Try to find non-chemical solutions. If you do use these chemicals inside, keep the area well ventilated.
- Don’t mix chemicals. They may become poisonous when mixed. Bleach and ammonia are just one example; when mixed together, they create a poisonous gas that can be deadly.
- Label everything inside your medicine cabinet. Ask yourself, “If an adult needed a particular medicine, could he or she find the right one easily, without guessing?”
- Get rid of old or expired medicines and household products.
- Keep medicines and chemicals in their original containers.
- Follow the label directions when using a product.
- Have your gas heater and any other gas-, oil- or wood-fueled appliances serviced regularly. Be sure these appliances are properly vented.
- Never run your car in your garage, other than when you are driving in and out.
- Install a carbon monoxide detector to keep you safe in case of a carbon monoxide leak in your home.
What to do in case of poisoning
Make sure the number for the poison control center (1-800-222-1222) is on or near every phone in your home. In the case of poisoning or suspected poisoning, call the local center right away and make sure you know what the immediate proper care should be. Different types of poison require different treatments.
- Stay calm.
- Get the person away from the poison. If the poison is on the skin, rinse it off with running water and remove any poisoned clothing. If the poison is in the air, move the person into fresh air.
- Call 911 if you have a poison emergency and the person has collapsed or is not breathing. OR
- If the victim is awake and alert, dial the poison control center at 1-800-222-1222 right away. Try to have the following information ready:
- The person’s age and weight
- The container that held the poison, if available
- The time of the poison exposure
- The address where the affected person is
- Stay on the phone and follow the instructions from the emergency operator or the poison control center.
NOTE: If the person swallowed a poisonous substance, do not try to induce vomiting, such as with syrup of ipecac. That approach to swallowed poisons is no longer recommended. Research shows that syrup of ipecac doesn’t improve the outcome of treatment for poisoning. And, because it causes vomiting, it can even get in the way of treatments that could be helpful.
- National Safety Council
- American Association of Poison Control Centers
- Evaluation and Management of Common Childhood Poisonings by Tamara McGregor, M.D., Mehjabin Parkar, M.D., and Shoba Rao, M.D. (American Family Physician March 01, 2009, http://www.aafp.org/afp/20090301/397.html)
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.