What Is Poisoning?
A poison is any substance that is harmful to your body. Poisoning is injury or death due to swallowing, inhaling, touching or injecting various drugs, chemicals, venoms or gases. Many substances are poisonous only in higher concentrations or dosages. And others are dangerous only if ingested. Children are particularly sensitive to even small amounts of certain drugs and chemicals.
Signs and symptoms of poisoning
The symptoms of poisoning will depend on the type of poison and the amount taken in, but general things to look out for include:
- Burns or redness around the mouth and lips
- Breathe that smells like chemicals, such as gasoline or paint thinner
- Difficulty breathing or has stopped breathing
- Drowsiness and fainting fits or unconscious
- Confusion or other altered mental status
- Uncontrollably restless or agitated
- Having seizures
If a child suddenly develops these symptoms, they may have been poisoned, particularly if they're drowsy and confused.
If you suspect poisoning, be alert for clues such as empty pill bottles or packages, scattered pills, and burns, stains and odors on the person or nearby objects. With a child, consider the possibility that he or she may have applied medicated patches or swallowed a button battery.
What to do while waiting for help
Take the following actions until help arrives:
Swallowed poison - Remove anything remaining in the person's mouth. If the suspected poison is a household cleaner or other chemical, read the container's label and follow instructions for accidental poisoning.
Poison on the skin - Remove any contaminated clothing using gloves. Rinse the skin for 15 to 20 minutes in a shower or with a hose.
Poison in the eye - Gently flush the eye with cool or lukewarm water for 20 minutes or until help arrives.
Inhaled poison - Get the person into fresh air as soon as possible.
If the person vomits, turn his or her head to the side to prevent choking.
Begin CPR if the person shows no signs of life, such as moving, breathing or coughing.
Do not do anything to induce vomiting.
Types of poisons
Poisons can be swallowed, absorbed through the skin, inhaled, splashed into the eyes, or injected.
A medication overdose is the most common form of poisoning. This can include both over-the-counter medications, such as paracetamol, and prescription medications, such as antidepressants.
Other potential poisons include:
- Household products, such as bleach
- Cosmetic items, such as nail polish
- Some types of plants and fungi
- Certain types of household chemicals and pesticides
- Carbon monoxide
- Poorly prepared or cooked food, and food that's gone mouldy or been contaminated with bacteria from raw meat (food poisoning)
- Alcohol, if an excessive amount is consumed over a short period of time (alcohol poisoning)
- Recreational drugs or substances
Snakes and insects, such as wasps and bees, aren't poisonous, but their bites or stings can contain venom (toxin).
There are several things you can do to reduce your or your child’s risk of poisoning.
These include carefully reading the patient information leaflet that comes with your medication, and ensuring that any poisonous substances are locked away out of the sight and reach of your children.
A combination of history, physical examination, and laboratory studies will help reveal the cause of most poisonings. Frequently, treatment must begin before all information is available.
History: As a family member or friend of a poisoned person, you can greatly assist the doctor and provide valuable clues by telling the doctor about these details:
- Everything the person ate or drank recently
- Names of all prescription and over-the-counter medications the person is taking
- Exposure to chemicals at home or at work
- Whether others in the family or at work have been similarly ill or exposed
- Whether the person has any psychiatric history to suggest an intentional ingestion (suicide attempt)
Testing: Many poisons can be detected in the blood or urine. The tests ordered will be based on information revealed in the history and physical exam.
- A toxicology screen or "tox" screen looks for common drugs of abuse
- A specific blood test will give serum levels of some drugs. Some drugs affect the electrical activity of the heart. An electrocardiogram (ECG) may reveal toxicity.
- Sometimes a person is unconscious for no obvious reason. A CT scan of the brain will help tell if there has been a structural change in the brain, such as a stroke.
Poisoning can occur from a variety of factors like medications, illicit drugs, foods, and attempts to harm one’s life. Poisoning is a medical emergency and cannot be treated at home. If think you or someone you know shows the symptoms of poisoning as described previously, seek medical care immediately.