Medical Emergency- Poisoning

In the U.S., there are two ways to get help for a poison emergency. You can either:

  1. Use the web POISONCONTROL® tool to get specific guidance for your case, based on your age, substance, and amount, (and weight, if needed for your specific case) or
  2. Call poison control at 1-800-222-1222.

According to the CDC, unintentional poisoning is the leading cause of injury death in the U.S., comprising nearly 42% of injury fatalities in 2020.

One of the most frightening things for a parent is to walk into a room and find their child ingesting a cleaner from under the sink, or their supernatural ability to scale a 5 ft wall and access the medicine cabinet, ingesting whatever colorful pills in it. Or your 6-year-old, playing in the backyard after a rain discovers mushrooms and decides to sample them, unaware that they most likely are poisonous.

Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, children can find a way to ingest something they shouldn’t. Accidental poisoning can happen to anyone.

Children, especially those under age 6, are more likely to have unintentional poisonings than older children and adults. Their small body size, along with increased metabolism makes them more susceptible to the effects of whatever they ingest, inhale, or come in contact with.  

Most common poisoning in children

The most common poison exposures for children are ingestion of household products such as cosmetics and personal care products, cleaning substances, pain relievers, foreign bodies, and plants.

Most fatal poisoning in children

Fumes, gases, or vapors (including carbon monoxide), followed closely by pain medications, were the most frequent causes of pediatric fatalities reported to Poison Control between 2016 and 2020.

Other sources of poisoning in children (and adults)

Check the warning on fluoridated toothpaste. The label states that if accidentally ingested to call poison control. Mouthwash can also be another source of poisoning.

Art supplies- clays, paints, etc can also be poisonous. Use with supervision or avoid any harmful art products.

The leading cause of unintentional injury death across all ages

Poisoning is the leading cause of unintentional injury death. In 2010, fatalities from unintentional poisoning totaled 33,041.6 Approximately 2.3 million unintentional poisonings or poison exposures (predominately nonfatal) were reported to poison control centers in 2011.

Types of poisoning

Poisons can be swallowed, inhaled, absorbed or injected.

Swallowed or ingested poisonings

  • Prescription medications- opioid analgesics, blood pressure medicine, eye drops, etc.
  • Over the counter medications- pain relievers, liquid forms of meds
  • Street drugs- methamphetamine, fentanyl
  • Alcohol
  • Foreign objects- lithium batteries
  • Household cleaners and laundry detergents, hand sanitizer
  • Garden supplies- fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides
  • Indoor plants- dieffenbachia, philodendron
  • Outdoor plants- wild mushrooms, snowberries, nightshade, water hemlock, oleander
  • Food poisoning-Campylobacter, salmonella, listeria, botulism, e. coli., etc.

Inhaled poisonings

  • Carbon monoxide poisoning from faulty CO detectors in home, fires, car exhaust leaks
  • Ammonia and bleach reaction producing chlorine gas
  • Solvent fumes

Absorbed poisonings

  • Cleaning products
  • Contact plants- poison oak, ivy, sumac

Injected poisonings

  • Bee and wasp stings
  • Venomous snakes
  • Opioids

The most lethal nondrug poisoning

Carbon monoxide causes the most nondrug poisoning deaths (approximately 524 per year), especially among people over 65 years old and male.

CO poisonings, happen mostly in the home (approximately 73%) from improperly maintained and vented sources in or near the home.

HOW CAN WE PREVENT  POISONING? (excerpt from CDC website)

Poisoning is almost always preventable. The following tips can help you, your family, and friends avoid unintentional poisonings.

  • Keep chemical products in their original bottles or containers.
  • Do not use food containers, such as cups, bottles, or jars, to store chemical products, such as cleaning solutions or beauty products.
  • Keep all drugs in medicine cabinets or other childproof cabinets that young children cannot reach.
  • Never leave children alone with household products or drugs.
  • Do not leave household products or drugs out after using them. Return the products to a childproof cabinet as soon as you are done with them.
  • Read and follow directions for application and storage of all household products.

There are also specific steps you can take to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • Have heating systems, water heaters, and all other gas-, oil-, or coal-burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every late summer or early fall.
  • Install battery-operated CO detectors in homes, and check or replace batteries when changing the time on clocks each spring and fall. If a detector sounds, leave the home immediately and call 911.
  • Seek medical attention promptly if CO poisoning is suspected and if you feel dizzy, light-headed, or nauseated.
  • Do not use a generator, charcoal grill, camp stove, or other gasoline- or charcoal-burning device inside the home, basement, garage, or outside the home near a window.
  • Never leave a car or truck running inside a garage attached to a house, even if the garage door is left open.
  • Do not use a stove or fireplace that is not vented to the outside.
  • Do not use a gas cooking oven for heat.

What to do if poisoned or suspect poisoning

Keep activated charcoal in your first aid kit for poisonings, however, do not use unless instructed by EMS or poison control.

Do not wait for signs of poisoning before calling Poison Help (1-800-222-1222), which connects you to your local poison center.

If the person is not breathing, call 911.

  • Initiate CPR if not breathing
  • Stay calm. Not all medicines, chemicals, or household products are poisonous. Not all contact with poison results in poisoning.
  • Make sure to have the container of the product you think caused the poisoning nearby. The label has important information.

Be ready (if you can) to tell the expert on the phone:

  • The exposed person’s age and weight
  • Known health conditions or problems
  • The product involved
  • How the product contacted the person (for example, by mouth, by inhaling, through the skin, or through the eyes)
  • How long ago the poison contacted the person
  • What first aid has already been given
  • Whether the person has vomited
  • Your exact location and how long it would take you to get to a hospital

What to do while waiting for help

  • IF unconscious (and breathing)-while you’re waiting for medical help to arrive, lie the person on their side with a cushion behind their back and their upper leg pulled slightly forward, so they do not fall on their face or roll backwards.
  • Wipe any vomit away from their mouth and keep their head pointing down, to allow any vomit to escape
  • If the person inhaled poison, get him or her fresh air right away.
  • If the person has poison on the skin, take off any clothing the poison touched. Rinse skin with running water for 15 to 20 minutes.
  • If the person has poison in the eyes, rinse eyes with running water for 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Do not use activated charcoal when you think someone may have been poisoned unless instructed by EMS/medical personnel or poison control.

- Brooke Lounsbury, RN

Medical Content Writer

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