Poisoning

Description

Poisoning can occur when you inhale, swallow, or touch something that makes you very ill. Some poisons can cause death.

Poisoning usually occurs from:

  • Taking too much medicine or taking medicine not meant for you
  • Inhaling or swallowing household or other types of chemicals
  • Absorbing chemicals through the skin
  • Inhaling gas, such as carbon monoxide

How to tell if someone has been poisoned

Signs or symptoms of poisoning may include:

  • Very large or very small pupils
  • Rapid or very slow heartbeat
  • Rapid or very slow breathing
  • Drooling or very dry mouth
  • Stomach pain, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Sleepiness or hyperactivity
  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Uncoordinated movements or difficulty walking
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Burns or redness of the lips and mouth, caused by drinking poison
  • Chemical-smelling breath
  • Chemical burns or stains on the person, clothing, or area around the person
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Loss of vision
  • Spontaneous bleeding
  • Empty pill bottles or pills scattered around

Other health problems can also cause some of these symptoms. However, if you think someone has been poisoned, you should act quickly.

Not all poisons cause symptoms right away. Sometimes symptoms come on slowly or occur hours after exposure.

What to do in case of poisoning

The U.S. Poison Help Line recommends taking these steps if someone is poisoned.

WHAT TO DO FIRST

  • Stay calm. Not all medicines or chemicals cause poisoning.
  • If the person has passed out or is not breathing, call 9-1-1 or your local emergency number right away.
  • For an inhaled poison such as carbon monoxide, get the person into fresh air right away.
  • For poison on the skin, take off any clothing touched by the poison. Rinse the person's skin with running water for 15 to 20 minutes.
  • For poison in the eyes, rinse the person's eyes with running water for 15 to 20 minutes.
  • For poison that has been swallowed, DO NOT give the person activated charcoal. DO NOT give children ipecac syrup. DO NOT give the person anything before talking with the Poison Control Center.

GETTING HELP

Call the U.S. National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222. Do not wait until the person has symptoms before you call. Try to have the following information ready:

  • The container or bottle from the medicine or poison
  • The person's weight, age, and any health problems
  • The time the poisoning occurred
  • How the poisoning happened, such as by mouth, inhaling, or skin or eye contact
  • Whether the person vomited
  • What type of first aid you have given
  • Where the person is located

The center is available anywhere in the U.S. 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. You can call and talk with a poison expert to find out what to do in case of a poisoning. Often you will be able to get help over the phone and not have to go to the emergency room.

What to expect at the emergency room

If you need to go to the emergency room, the health care provider will check your temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure.

You may need other tests, including:

  • Blood and urine tests
  • X-rays
  • EKG
  • Procedures that look inside your airways or esophagus (swallowing tube) and stomach

To keep more poison from being absorbed, you may receive:

  • Activated charcoal
  • A tube through the nose into the stomach
  • A laxative

Other treatments may include:

  • Rinsing or irrigating the skin and eyes
  • Breathing support, including a tube through the mouth into the windpipe (trachea)
  • Fluids through the vein (IV)
  • Medications to reverse the effects of the poison

How to prevent poisoning

Take these steps to help prevent poisoning.

  • Never share prescription medicines.
  • Take your medicines as directed by your doctor. Don't take extra medicine or take it more often than prescribed.

Tell your doctor and pharmacist about all the medicines you take.

  • Read labels for over-the counter medicines. Always follow the directions on the label.
  • Never take medicine in the dark. Be sure you can see what you're taking.
  • Never mix household chemicals. Doing so can cause dangerous gases.
  • Always store household chemicals in the container they came in. Don't reuse containers.
  • Keep all medicines and chemicals locked up or out of the reach of children.
  • Read and follow the labels on household chemicals. Wear clothing or gloves to protect you when handling, if directed.
  • Install carbon monoxide detectors. Make sure they have fresh batteries.

References

Emergency Management of Poisoning. In: Shannon MW, Borron SW, Burns MJ, eds. Haddad and Winchester's Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 2.

Kelig K. General Approach to the Poisoned Patient. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Mosby Elsevier; 2012:chap 147.

Rezaiyan R. Poisonings. In: Tschudy MM, Arcara KM. Johns Hopkins: The Harriet Lane Handbook. 19th ed. Philadephia, PA: Mosby Elsevier; 2011: chap 2.

Review date:
October 4, 2014
Reviewed by:
Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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