Poisons Overview

The danger of poisons

People of any age can become ill if they come into contact with certain medicines, household pesticides, chemicals, cosmetics, or plants. But children in particular face a greater risk for unintentional poisoning death and exposure than adults. This is not only because they are smaller, but also because they have faster metabolic rates. They are less able physically to handle toxic chemicals.

What causes poisonings?

Young children are poisoned most often by things in the home. These include:

  • Medicines. Iron pills and pain medicines are among the most common causes of fatal poisonings in small children.

  • Cleaning products

  • Plants

  • Cosmetics

  • Pesticides

  • Paints and solvents

Carbon monoxide poisoning and lead poisoning also pose a threat to both children and adults. Although serious reactions can happen in all cases of poisoning, most people are not permanently harmed if they are treated right away.

How do most poisonings happen?

More than 90% of all poison exposures happen in the home. Among children ages 5 and under, 57% of poison exposures are by nonmedicine products. These include cosmetics, cleaning substances, plants, pesticides, and art supplies. Forty-three percent are by medicines. Children under 6 years of age accounted for roughly half (47.7%) of all exposures to poisons in the United States as of the last report from the American Association of Poison Control Centers. 

Most poisonings happen when parents are not paying close attention or watching children as closely as usual. Calls to poison control centers peak between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. In fact, because the hectic routine of getting dinner on the table causes so many lapses in parental attention, late afternoon has come to be known as "the arsenic hour" by poison center personnel.

What to do if a poisoning happens

Swallowed poisons

If you find your child with an open or empty container of a toxic substance, your child may have been poisoned. Stay calm, act quickly, and follow these guidelines:

  • Get the poison away from the child.

  • If the substance is still in the child's mouth, make him or her spit it out or remove it with your fingers (keep this along with any other evidence of what the child has swallowed).

  • Do not make the child vomit.

  • Do not follow instructions on packaging regarding poisoning because these are often outdated. Instead, call Poison Help at 800-222-1222 to get connected to a local poison center. 

Call 911 right away, if your child has any of these symptoms:

  • Sore throat

  • Trouble breathing

  • Drowsiness, irritability, or jumpiness

  • Nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain without fever

  • Lip or mouth burns or blisters

  • Unusual drooling

  • Strange odors on your child's breath

  • Unusual stains on your child's clothing

  • Seizures or unconsciousness

Take or send the poison container with your child to help the healthcare provider find out what was swallowed. If your child does not have these symptoms, call your local poison control center or your child's healthcare provider. They will need the following information to help you:

  • Your name and phone number

  • Your child's name, age, and weight

  • Any health conditions your child may have

  • Any medicines your child may be taking

  • The name of the substance your child swallowed. Read it from the container and spell it.

  • The time your child swallowed the poison (or when you found your child), and the amount you think was swallowed.

  • Any symptoms your child may be having

  • If the substance was a prescription medicine, give all the information on the label, including the name of the medicine.

    • If the name of the medicine is not on the label, give the name and phone number of the pharmacy, and the date of the prescription.

    • What the pill looked like (if you can tell) and if it had any printed numbers or letters on it.

  • If your child swallowed another substance, such as a part of a plant, describe it as much as you can to help identify it.

Poisons on the skin

If your child spills a chemical on his or her body, remove his or her clothes and rinse the skin with lukewarm—not hot—water. If the area shows signs of being burned, continue rinsing for at least 15 minutes, no matter how much your child may protest. Then call the poison control center for further advice. Do not use ointments or grease.

Poison in the eye

Flush the eye by holding the eyelid open and pouring a steady stream of lukewarm—not hot—water into the inner corner of the eye. If this is a child, you may need help from another adult to hold the child while you rinse the eye. Continue flushing the eye for 15 minutes, and call the poison control center for further instructions. Do not use an eyecup, eyedrops, or ointment unless the poison center tells you to do so.

Poisonous fumes or gases

In the home, poisonous fumes can be emitted from the following sources:

  • A car running in a closed garage

  • Leaky gas vents

  • Wood, coal, or kerosene stoves that are not working properly

  • Mixing bleach and ammonia together while cleaning, which makes chloramine gas

  • Strong fumes from other cleaners and solvents

If your child breathes in fumes or gases, get him or her into fresh air right away.

  • If your child is breathing without a problem, call the poison center for further instructions.

  • If your child is having difficulty breathing, call 911 or your local emergency service (EMS).

  • If your child has stopped breathing, start CPR and do not stop until your child breathes on his or her own or someone else can take over. If you can, have someone call 911 right away. If you are alone, perform CPR for 2 minutes and then call 911.

Be prepared for a poisoning emergency by posting the poison center telephone number by every telephone in your home.

Child-resistant lids now go on certain common household products

The Consumer Product Safety Commission requires safety caps on a variety of commonly used household products. The products, all oily hydrocarbon products, are thin and slippery and can easily suffocate children if the substances are drawn into their lungs when drinking them. The products can cause chemical pneumonia by coating the inside of the lungs. Products that are required to have a safety lid include:

  • Baby oils

  • Sunscreens

  • Nail enamel dryers

  • Hair oils

  • Bath, body, and massage oils

  • Makeup removers

  • Some automotive chemicals (gasoline additives, fuel injection cleaners, and carburetor cleaners)

  • Cleaning solvents (wood oil cleaners, metal cleaners, spot removers, and adhesive removers)

  • Some water repellents containing mineral spirits used for decks, shoes, and sports equipment

  • General-use household oil

  • Gun-cleaning solvents containing kerosene

Oil products that are thicker and more "syrupy" are not a problem, since they are not easily inhaled into the lungs.

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