A poison is a substance that has toxic effects. It 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. That's because they're naturally curious. 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 gets distracted by the doorbell, a phone, or some other interruption.
Young children are also at high risk for accidental poisoning from nonprescription and prescription medicines. Medicine bottles are packaged to prevent a child from opening them. But be sure to keep all medicines away from where children can reach them.
Teens also have an increased risk of poisonings, both accidental and intentional, because of their risk-taking behavior. Some teens experiment with poisonous substances. They may sniff toxic glues or inhale aerosol substances to get "high." About half of all poisonings in teens are classified as suicide attempts. They always require medical care.
Adults—especially older adults—are at risk for accidental and intentional poisonings from:
- Alcohol and illegal drugs.
- Gas leaks. These include exhaust leaks from heaters and stoves and automobile exhaust.
- Medicines, such as acetaminophen, antibiotics, cough and cold remedies, vitamins, pain relievers, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers.
- Household cleaning supplies and other substances. Examples are cosmetics, antifreeze, windshield cleaner, gardening products, and paint thinners.
- Herbal products.
Symptoms of poisonings
The symptoms of a suspected poisoning may vary. They depend 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, grouchiness, or tremors.
- Substance residue or burn around the mouth, teeth, or eyes, or on the skin.
- Trouble breathing.
- A headache.
In the case of a poisoning, a poison control center, a hospital, or your doctor can give you advice right away on what to do. The United States National Poison Control Hotline phone number is 1-800-222-1222. Have the poison container with you so you can give complete information to the poison control center, 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 nonbinary, 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, such as blood thinners (anticoagulants), medicines that suppress the immune system like steroids or chemotherapy, herbal remedies, or supplements 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 behavior 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 lightheaded, 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. Or they might be concerned about the cost. 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 center or the National Poison Control Hotline (1-800-222-1222) now, before you do anything else. The poison control center 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 center.
- If you cannot reach a poison control center by phone, go to the nearest emergency room.
Seek Care Today
Call the local poison control center, the National Poison Control Hotline (1-800-222-1222), or your doctor today for more information.
First aid steps for possible poisoning
First aid measures for suspected poisoning
Call a poison control center, hospital, or doctor right away. The United States National Poison Control Hotline phone number is 1-800-222-1222. Have the poison container with you so you can give complete information to the poison control center. They have guidelines on what treatments are needed for all types of poisons.
Do not try to make the person vomit. And 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. Don't store anything else in the container. Activated charcoal is also not used at home to treat poisonings.
The poison control center will be able to help you quickly if you have this 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's written on the label. Include the list of ingredients and the company name and contact number, if it's 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 center recommends medical evaluation, take the product container or substance and any stomach contents that the person vomited to help doctors find out how serious the poisoning is.
If you think the poisoning is intentional
If a poisoning was intentional, first get help as described above. If you or someone you know talks about suicide, self-harm, or feeling hopeless, get help right away. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or text HOME to 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line. Consider saving these numbers in your phone.
When to call for help during self-care
Call a doctor if any of the following occur during self-care at home:
- New or worse trouble breathing.
- New or worse nausea and vomiting.
- New or worse sleepiness, confusion, or decreased alertness.
- Symptoms occur more often or are more severe.
Preparing For Your Appointment
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared for your appointment.
Current as of: March 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine