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.
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.
Young children are also at high risk for accidental poisoning from nonprescription and prescription medicines. Even though medicine bottles are packaged to prevent a child from opening them, be sure to keep all medicines away from where children can reach them.
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
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.
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
- Nausea and
- Sudden sleepiness, confusion, or
- Anxiousness, nervousness, irritability, or
- Substance residue or burn around the
mouth, teeth, eyes, or on the skin.
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.
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.
The poison control
center will be able to help you quickly if you have the following information
- Your name and phone number
name, age, weight, and health status of the person who has been
- 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
- Type of poison exposure—swallowed, inhaled, or in
contact with the eyes or skin
- Time of poisoning
the person vomited
- Any first aid measures taken
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
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.
Activated charcoal is also not used at home to treat poisonings.
The poison control center has guidelines on what treatments are needed for all types of poisons.
If a poisoning was intentional, first get help as described above. Then call your local suicide hotline or the national suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) for more help and advice.
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
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- Have your home tested for levels of lead if any older
leaded paints may still be present. For more information, see the topic
- 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
- Keep alcohol out of the sight and reach of
- Educate your children about the effects of alcohol and
medicines. Encourage your teenager to avoid alcohol and
- 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.
- 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
- Keep medicines in their original labeled
- Buy nonprescription medicines in child-resistant
- Try to take medicines out of the sight of
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.
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
- When did the poisoning occur?
- Was the
substance swallowed, inhaled, spilled on the skin, or splashed in the
- Have you ever been treated for a poisoning in the past? What
was the substance? How long ago? How was the poisoning treated?
much of the substance was involved?
- What symptoms are
- How long have symptoms been present?
- Have you called a poison control center? What advice did they give? Did it
- What home treatment measures have been
- Have any nonprescription medicines been taken? What effect
did they have?
- What prescription and nonprescription medicines do
- Were alcohol or drugs involved in the
- Do you have any
Organization American Association of Poison Control Centers
- Alcohol and Drug Problems
- Nausea and Vomiting, Age 12 and Older
- Suicidal Thoughts or Threats
- Swallowed or Inhaled Objects