Being prepared ahead of time for a poisoning emergency can save valuable minutes when a person’s health — or life — is at stake. Look up the phone number of your local poison control center and place it alongside other important numbers everywhere you keep such a list: home, work, wallet, and/or cell phone. The people at 911 can send over an ambulance, but the poison control people are usually the ones who will know what treatment is needed. If possible, have the poison container with you. That way, medical experts can identify the specific chemical involved, enabling them to provide the best medical advice. If the person has swallowed prescription medicines, have the bottle or tube handy as well.
Common poisonous household substances include antifreeze, fuel, herbicides, insecticides, mothballs, oven cleaner, furniture polish, paint remover, paint thinner, pesticides, solvents, tobacco, turpentine, and cleaning products such as dishwashing detergent.
Hundreds of common garden plants are also poisonous, including castor bean, foxglove, jimsonweed, oleander, poison hemlock, and water hemlock. If someone has eaten a plant that might be poisonous, tell the poison control center what it is. If you don’t know, try to describe it as thoroughly as possible, including the color and type of leaves or berries it has.
What are the signs of poisoning?
Sometimes you don’t know for sure that a child or adult has swallowed poison. If you notice any of these signs or symptoms and suspect poisoning may be the cause, call 911 immediately:
- Severe throat pain
- Burning on the lips or mouth
- Unusual drooling or strange odor on the breath
- Unexplained severe nausea or vomiting
- Difficulty breathing
What to do
If you or someone with you has swallowed something that may be poisonous, call the poison control center at 1-800-222-1222 or 911 immediately. Encourage the person to spit out any of the substance left in his or her mouth.
Important: Do not encourage a person who has ingested poison to vomit unless specifically advised to do so by a medical expert. Vomiting can cause further injury by exposing the throat and mouth to a toxic substance. Specifically, do not have the person vomit if he or she has a burning sensation in the mouth or throat. Vomiting can be particularly dangerous if the person has swallowed a strong acid such as a toilet bowl cleaner, a strong alkali such as a drain or oven cleaner, or a petroleum product such as gasoline, or kerosene.
If medical experts recommend that you induce vomiting, they will tell you the best way to do it. When vomiting begins, keep the head lower than the chest. That will prevent vomited material from getting into the lungs.
A special note of caution: Do not keep syrup of ipecac in the house. In the past, this substance was used to induce vomiting. But more than a decade ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics reversed a longstanding recommendation and advised parents to get rid of it. The reason: The potential misuse of ipecac poses a greater danger than any benefit it might provide.
If the eye is affected, flush it under a running faucet. Don’t worry about finding sterile water. Any source of clean water will do. The most important thing is to flush out the chemical. Tilt the head so that the affected eye is below the other eye — this will help you avoid washing chemicals into the other eye. Another option: Fill a sink or dishpan with water and immerse the face. Have the victim open and close the eyelids underwater, moving the eye around to make sure water reaches every part. You may want to change the water several times.
How to prevent poisoning
Children aged 6 and under are most at risk for poisoning in the home. In fact, more than a million cases of poisoning involving children in this age group are reported to poison control centers yearly. The most effective way to prevent accidental poisonings is to poison-proof your house. Here’s how:
- Keep all drugs, medications, household cleaning products, and cosmetics out of a child’s reach. Don’t assume that any medicine or cleaner is safe, and be aware that dishwasher detergent is especially dangerous. It’s in most homes and accessible to young children who can get under a sink. Even vitamins and aspirin can be dangerous and sometimes deadly if taken by a child. In fact, iron pills or vitamin supplements with iron are one of the most serious causes of poisonings in children under 5 years old.
- Do not buy flavored or scented alcohol-based cleansers — some teens and even young children have ingested them.
- Make sure your medications have childproof safety caps.
- Put safety latches on all cabinets and drawers that contain dangerous substances or objects.
- Keep medications in their own marked bottles. Don’t mix them.
- Never tell your children that medicine is candy.
- Never put harmful substances in unmarked containers.
- Get rid of all chemicals that you no longer need, such as old cans of paint and liquid cleaner, once you’re done with your project. Most communities have collection centers or regular “toxic round-ups” that allow you to dispose of potentially dangerous substances safely.
- Tell your children not to eat wild mushrooms.
- Post the local poison control center’s telephone number beside every telephone in the house and add it to your cell phone directory. Carry a slip of paper with emergency numbers in your purse or wallet.
Handbook of First Aid and Emergency Care, American Medical Association.
American College of Emergency Physicians, First Aid Manual.
The American Red Cross First Aid and Safety Handbook.
National Capital Poison Center, Washington, D.C., www.poison.org/actFast/firstAid.asp
Minnesota Poison Control System. Household Products.
Texas State Department of Health and the National Safety Council. Poisonous Plants.
National SAFE KIDS Campaign. Poison Prevention Fact Sheet.
American Association of Poison Control Centers, Inc. Preventing Poisonings in the Home.
Mayo Clinic. Poisoning: First Aid.