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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
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.
Symptoms of shock (most of which will be present) 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.
Symptoms of shock in a child may 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.
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?
Other Places To Get Help
If you want to save this information but don't think it is safe to take it home, see if a trusted friend can keep it for you. Plan ahead. Know who you can call for help, and memorize the phone number.
Be careful online too. Your online activity may be seen by others. Do not use your personal computer or device to read about this topic. Use a safe computer such as one at work, a friend's house, or a library.
Many of the resources below have toll-free phone numbers and provide help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in multiple languages. In an emergency, call 911.
- To find a suicide prevention crisis centre phone number or website in your province, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention's webpage at http://suicideprevention.ca/need-help.
- To find a rape crisis or women's centre phone number or website in your province, visit the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres' webpage at www.casac.ca/content/anti-violence-centres.
- Kids and teens can call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or visit http://org.kidshelpphone.ca.
- Provincial Health Information Line. Health Link. Call 8-1-1 or visit www.albertahealthservices.ca/assets/healthinfo/link/index.html.
- Alberta Human Services: Connect to Support and Services. Call one of the numbers below or visit http://humanservices.alberta.ca/abuse-bullying/14839.html.
- Family Violence Info Line. Call 310-1818.
- Child Abuse Hotline. Call 1-800-387-5437.
- Bullying Helpline. Call 1-888-456-2323.
- Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE). Call (780) 423-4121 or visit www.sace.ab.ca.
- Mental Health Helpline. Call 1-877-303-2642.
- Addiction Services Helpline. Call 1-866-332-2322.
- Provincial Health Information Line. HealthLinkBC. Call 8-1-1 or visit www.healthlinkbc.ca.
- VictimLinkBC. Call 1-800-563-0808 or visit http://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/justice/criminal-justice/victims-of-crime/victimlinkbc.
- Keeping Kids Safe. Call 1-800-663-9122 or visit http://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/public-safety/protecting-children/keeping-kids-safe.
- Helpline for Children. Children and youth can call 310-1234.
- BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services. Call 310-6789 or visit www.bcmhsus.ca.
- Crisis Centre. Call 1-800-784-2433 or visit http://crisiscentre.bc.ca.
- Provincial Health Information Line. Tele-Care: Call 8-1-1 or visit www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/departments/health/Tele-Care.html.
- Emergency Social Services. Visit http://www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/departments/social_development/about_us/emergency_socialservices.html to find the number for the office nearest you or call 1-800-442-9799.
- Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Centre. Call (506) 454-0437 or visit www.fsacc.ca.
- Suicide Prevention CHIMO Helpline. Call 1-800-667-5005 or visit www2.gnb.ca/content/gnb/en/departments/health/Suicide_Prevention.html.
- Provincial Health Information Line. Telehealth Ontario: Call 1-866-797-0000 or visit www.ontario.ca/page/get-medical-advice-telehealth-ontario.
- Assaulted Women's Helpline. Call 1-866-863-0511 or visit www.awhl.org.
- Distress and Crisis Ontario. Visit www.dcontario.org centres.html to find the phone number for a crisis line in your calling area.
- Drug and Alcohol Helpline. Call 1-800-565-8603 or visit www.drugandalcoholhelpline.ca.
- Mental Health Helpline. Call 1-866-531-2600 or visit www.mentalhealthhelpline.ca.
- Provincial Health Information Line. Info-Sante. Call 8-1-1 or visit www.santemonteregie.qc.ca/portail/services/info-sante.en.html.
- Domestic Violence. Go to http://domesticviolence.gouv.qc.ca.
- Batshaw Youth and Family Centres Foundation. Call Youth Protection Services at (514) 935-6196 or visit www.batshaw.qc.ca/en/need-help/report.
- Drugs: Help and Referral. Call 1-800-265-2626 or visit www.drogue-aidereference.qc.ca/www/index.php.
- Preventing Suicide. Call 1-866-277-3553 or visit http://sante.gouv.qc.ca/en/conseils-et-prevention/prevenir-le-suicide.
- Mental Health. Visit http://sante.gouv.qc.ca/en/problemes-de-sante/sante-mentale.
- Provincial Health Information Line. HealthLine. Call 8-1-1 or visit www.saskatchewan.ca/residents/health/accessing-health-care-services/healthline.
- Victims of Crime and Abuse. Go to www.saskatchewan.ca/residents/justice-crime-and-the-law/victims-of-crime-and-abuse for a list of community-based organizations and their contact information.
- Child Abuse and Neglect. Go to www.saskatchewan.ca/residents/justice-crime-and-the-law/child-protection/child-abuse-and-neglect for a list of local child protection offices and their contact information.
- Mental Health and Addiction Services. Go to www.saskatchewan.ca/residents/health/accessing-health-care-services/mental-health-and-addictions-support-services for a list of local mental health and addictions services.
- Territorial Health Information Line. HealthLine: Call 8-1-1 or visit www.hss.gov.yk.ca/811.php. If you are calling from a satellite phone, you can dial (604) 215-4700 to reach the Health Services Representative at HealthLink BC.
- Family and Children's Services. Call 1-800-661-0408, ext. 3002, or visit www.hss.gov.yk.ca/family_children.php.
- VictimLink. Call 1-800-563-0808 or visit the Department of Justice "Need Help? Phone Directory" at www.justice.gov.yk.ca/prog/cor/vs/phonedir.html.
- Alcohol and Drug Services. Call 1-855-667-5777 or visit http://hss.gov.yk.ca/ads.php.
Other provinces and territories
Check your local phone book or provincial or territorial website.
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Current as ofMarch 20, 2017
Current as of: March 20, 2017
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