Accidental Poisoning: Know What to Do

Deadly pills spilled from plastic container

It’s hard to imagine it happening until it does – discovering your child with an open bottle of Tylenol, or swallowing what you thought was a couple aspirin in a dark bathroom only to realize that it wasn’t aspirin. Believe it or not, accidental poisonings killed 33,554 people in 2011, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control. Since 90% of poisonings happen in the home, it’s important to know how to poison-proof your home and learn what to do if you or someone you love is exposed to a potentially poisonous dose or substance.

What can cause poisoning?
Medicines are the most common cause of accidental poisonings, but cleaning supplies, vitamins, carbon monoxide, pest killers, hydrocarbons (lamp oil, kerosene, gasoline, lighter fluid), certain plants, beauty products, art products and bites and stings may also result in poisoning. Poisonings can occur by ingesting, inhaling or touching something toxic.

Who is at risk?
Everyone. Unintentional poisoning is one of the leading causes of accidental death, and is the #1 cause for adults between the ages of 25 and 64, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Although about half of all poison-related calls to poison centers are for children under age 6, adults account for 92% of all poison-related deaths, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Poison control centers receive more than 10,000 calls a day.

What are signs of poisoning?
According to the Mayo Clinic, some common signs and symptoms of poisoning include burns or redness around the mouth or lips, breath that smells like chemicals, burns, stains or odors on the person or in their vicinity, empty medication bottles or scattered pills, seizures, vomiting, trouble breathing, sleepiness and confusion. However, symptoms may take time to develop, so get help immediately regardless of whether symptoms are present.

What should I do if I think I or someone I know may have been poisoned?
If you or the person affected is drowsy, unconscious, having trouble breathing, restless or agitated or having seizures, call 911 immediately. If the person appears to be stable with no symptoms, call the Poison Help Line at 1-800-222-1222 or call your local poison control center. They can provide you with free, confidential advice 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you have any doubts about something you or someone you know has ingested, inhaled or touched, don’t hesitate – call right away.

While you are waiting for help, there are a few things you can do:

  • First of all, if the person is unresponsive (without a pulse or not breathing), begin CPR.
  • If they’ve been exposed to noxious fumes, get them into fresh air right away.
  • If they swallowed a poison, remove anything that’s still in their mouth.
  • If they have swallowed a chemical like cleaner, check the label for instructions for accidental poisoning/ingestion.
  • If poison is on the person’s clothing, remove the clothing. If it’s on the skin or eyes, flush with cool or lukewarm water until help arrives or you are instructed to stop.
  • If possible, try to bring the bottle of the relevant substance with you to the hospital.
  • Do not swallow or administer any ipecac syrup or do anything voluntary that will cause vomiting, as this can sometimes cause further damage.

Tips for how to poison-proof your home

  • Keep medications in their original bottles or containers and store them in a high cabinet where children cannot see or reach them. Children can easily find medications in pillboxes, purses, pockets or other bags.
  • Read the directions and warnings on labels before taking any medication, and always ask your doctor first if that medication is safe for you and can be taken in combination with your other medications or foods.
  • Always turn on the lights and verify the label so you don’t pop the wrong pills by accident.
  • As soon as medications expire, dispose of them properly.
  • Never share your medications with someone else or take another person’s prescription medication.

Household products:

  • Keep chemical and beauty products in their original containers and store them in cabinets that cannot be accessed by children. Padlock any low-lying cabinets (like under the kitchen sink) that toddlers could wander into.
  • Never mix household products together. Mixing bleach and ammonia, for example, can produce toxic fumes. Be sure to use proper ventilation if you’re working with chemical products, and never sniff bottles to see what’s inside.
  • Wear long sleeves, closed shoes, socks, gloves, and long pants if you’re spraying insecticides, since some of them may be absorbed through the skin and may be deadly.

Finally, make sure you have the poison control center number (1-800-222-1222) programmed into your phone and posted in prominent places in your home. This week is National Poison Prevention Week. You can learn more about poisonings and how to avoid them from the American Association of Poison Control Centers.