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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.
Young 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 non-prescription 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 behaviour. 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 evaluation.
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.
- Herbal products.
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 include:
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Throat pain.
- Sudden sleepiness, confusion, or decreased alertness.
- Anxiousness, nervousness, irritability, or tremors.
- Substance residue or burn around the mouth, teeth, eyes, or on the skin.
- Trouble breathing.
Poison control centres, hospitals, or your doctor can give immediate advice in the case of a poisoning. Have the poison container with you so you can give complete information to the poison control centre, such as what the poison or substance is, how much was taken and when. Do not try to make the person vomit.
Check Your Symptoms
The medical assessment of symptoms is based on the body parts you have.
- If you are transgender or non-binary, choose the sex that matches the body parts (such as ovaries, testes, prostate, breasts, penis, or vagina) you now have in the area where you are having symptoms.
- If your symptoms aren’t related to those organs, you can choose the gender you identify with.
- If you have some organs of both sexes, you may need to go through this triage tool twice (once as "male" and once as "female"). This will make sure that the tool asks the right questions for you.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
- Your age. Babies and older adults tend to get sicker quicker.
- Your overall health. If you have a condition such as diabetes, HIV, cancer, or heart disease, you may need to pay closer attention to certain symptoms and seek care sooner.
- Medicines you take. Certain medicines and natural health products can cause symptoms or make them worse.
- Recent health events, such as surgery or injury. These kinds of events can cause symptoms afterwards or make them more serious.
- Your health habits and lifestyle, such as eating and exercise habits, smoking, alcohol or drug use, sexual history, and travel.
Try Home Treatment
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
- Try home treatment to relieve the symptoms.
- Call your doctor if symptoms get worse or you have any concerns (for example, if symptoms are not getting better as you would expect). You may need care sooner.
Changes in behaviour that can be caused by poisoning can include:
- Becoming increasingly sleepy and having trouble staying awake.
- Feeling restless, edgy, and angry for no reason.
- Feeling confused and not thinking clearly.
- Feeling very anxious or afraid for no reason.
Shock is a life-threatening condition that may quickly occur after a sudden illness or injury.
Adults and older children often have several symptoms of shock. These include:
- Passing out (losing consciousness).
- Feeling very dizzy or light-headed, like you may pass out.
- Feeling very weak or having trouble standing.
- Not feeling alert or able to think clearly. You may be confused, restless, fearful, or unable to respond to questions.
Shock is a life-threatening condition that may occur quickly after a sudden illness or injury.
Babies and young children often have several symptoms of shock. These include:
- Passing out (losing consciousness).
- Being very sleepy or hard to wake up.
- Not responding when being touched or talked to.
- Breathing much faster than usual.
- Acting confused. The child may not know where he or she is.
Symptoms of difficulty breathing can range from mild to severe. For example:
- You may feel a little out of breath but still be able to talk (mild difficulty breathing), or you may be so out of breath that you cannot talk at all (severe difficulty breathing).
- It may be getting hard to breathe with activity (mild difficulty breathing), or you may have to work very hard to breathe even when you're at rest (severe difficulty breathing).
Call 911 Now
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
Seek Care Now
Based on your answers, you may need care right away.
- Call the local poison control centre now, before you do anything else. The poison control centre will tell you exactly what to do.
- If possible, have the poison's container with you when you call. The information on the container may be helpful to the poison control centre.
- If you cannot reach a poison control centre by phone, go to the nearest emergency room.
Seek Care Today
Call the local poison control centre or your doctor today for more information.
First aid home treatment measures for suspected poisoning
Call your local poison control centre, hospital, or doctor immediately. Have the poison container with you so you can give complete information to the poison control centre. Do not try to make the person vomit.
The poison control centre will be able to help you quickly if you have the following information ready:
- Your name and phone number
- The name, age, weight, and health status of the person who has been poisoned
- 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 in poisoning
- Type of poison exposure—swallowed, inhaled, or in contact with the eyes or skin
- Time of poisoning
- Whether the person vomited
- Any first aid measures taken
- Your location and how far you are from an emergency medical facility
If the poison control centre 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 poisoning.
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 centre has guidelines on what treatments are needed for all types of poisons.
If a poisoning was intentional, first get help as described above. Then check your local phone book or provincial website for suicide resources on getting help in your area.
Symptoms to watch for during home treatment
Follow the instructions you received from your doctor or the poison control centre 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 more frequent.
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 containers.
- 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 centre 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 dangerous.
- Have your home tested for levels of lead if any older leaded paints may still be present. For more information, see the topic Lead Poisoning.
- 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 them.
- Keep alcohol out of the sight and reach of children.
- Educate your children about the effects of alcohol and medicines. Encourage your teenager to avoid alcohol and drugs.
- 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 "candy."
- Keep medicines in their original labelled containers.
- Buy non-prescription medicines in child-resistant packages.
- Try to take medicines out of the sight of children.
- Check 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, there are tips on how to dispose of them or you can call your pharmacist for instructions on how to dispose of them.
Preparing For Your Appointment
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 involved?
- When did the poisoning occur?
- Was the substance swallowed, inhaled, spilled on the skin, or splashed in the eyes?
- Have you ever been treated for a poisoning in the past? What was the substance? How long ago? How was the poisoning treated?
- How much of the substance was involved?
- What symptoms are present?
- How long have symptoms been present?
- Have you called a poison control centre? What advice did they give? Did it work?
- What home treatment measures have been tried?
- Have any non-prescription medicines been taken? What effect did they have?
- What prescription and non-prescription medicines do you take?
- Were alcohol or drugs involved in the poisoning?
- Do you have any health risks?
Current as of: June 26, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
H. Michael O'Connor MD - Emergency Medicine