Poisoning - Prevention and Treatment

Infections & Diseases

Table of Contents: Definition of Poisoning / Types of Poisoning (Acute Poisoning, Chronic Poisoning) / Prevent Poisoning in your Home / Signs of Potential Poisoning (Difficulty breathing, Difficulty speaking, Dizziness, Unconsciousness, Foaming or burning of the mouth, Cramps, Nausea, Vomiting) / Different Types and Methods of Poisoning Require Different, Immediate Treatment (Swallowed poison, Swallowed battery, Skin poison, Eye poison, Inhaled poison, Poisonous fumes)

A poison is any substance that is harmful to your body. You might swallow it, inhale it, inject it, or absorb it through your skin. Any substance can be poisonous if too much is taken. Poisons can include

  • Prescription or over-the-counter medicines taken in doses that are too high
  • Overdoses of illegal drugs
  • Carbon monoxide from gas appliances
  • Household products, such as laundry powder or furniture polish
  • Pesticides
  • Indoor or outdoor plants
  • Metals such as lead and mercury

Poisoning is a condition or a process in which an organism becomes chemically intoxicated by an exogenous substance, usually by ingestion or external exposure. The effects of poisoning range from short-term illness to brain damage, coma, and death. To prevent poisoning it is important to use and store products exactly as their labels say. Keep dangerous products where children can't get to them.

Contact or absorption of poisons can cause rapid death or impairment. Agents that act on the nervous system can paralyze in seconds or less, and include both biologically derived neurotoxins and so-called nerve gases, which may be synthesized for warfare or industry.

Inhaled or ingested cyanide, used as a method of execution in gas chambers, almost instantly starves the body of energy by inhibiting the enzymes in mitochondria that make ATP. Intravenous injection of an unnaturally high concentration of potassium chloride, such as in the execution of prisoners in parts of the United States, quickly stops the heart by eliminating the cell potential necessary for muscle contraction.

Most biocides, including pesticides, are created to act as poisons to target organisms, although acute or less observable chronic poisoning can also occur in non-target organisms (secondary poisoning), including the humans who apply the biocides and other beneficial organisms. For example, the herbicide 2,4-D imitates the action of a plant hormone, which makes its lethal toxicity specific to plants. Indeed, 2,4-D is not a poison, but classified as "harmful" (EU).

Many substances regarded as poisons are toxic only indirectly, by toxication. An example is "wood alcohol" or methanol, which is not poisonous itself, but is chemically converted to toxic formaldehyde and formic acid in the liver. Many drug molecules are made toxic in the liver, and the genetic variability of certain liver enzymes makes the toxicity of many compounds differ between people.

Exposure to radioactive substances can produce radiation poisoning, an unrelated phenomenon.

Each year, approximately about 3 million people more than half under age 6 swallow or have contact with a poisonous substance. As poison prevention, and appropriate, immediate treatment to poison contact or ingestion, are critical to keeping your child safe, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has some important tips. Please feel free to excerpt these tips or use them in their entirety for any print or broadcast story, with acknowledgement of source.

Acute Poisoning:

Acute poisoning is exposure to a poison on one occasion or during a short period of time. Symptoms develop in close relation to the degree of exposure. Absorption of a poison is necessary for systemic poisoning (that is, in the blood throughout the body). In contrast, substances that destroy tissue but do not absorb, such as lye, are classified as corrosives rather than poisons. Furthermore, many common household medications are not labeled with skull and crossbones, although they can cause severe illness or even death. In the medical sense, toxicity and poisoning can be caused by less dangerous substances than those legally classified as a poison. Toxicology is the study and practice of the symptoms, mechanisms, diagnosis, and treatment of poisoning.

Chronic Poisoning:

Chronic poisoning is long-term repeated or continuous exposure to a poison where symptoms do not occur immediately or after each exposure. The patient gradually becomes ill, or becomes ill after a long latent period. Chronic poisoning most commonly occurs following exposure to poisons that bioaccumulate, or are biomagnified, such as mercury, gadolinium, and lead.

Most poisonings occur when parents or caregivers are home but not paying attention. The most dangerous potential poisons are medicines, cleaning products, liquid nicotine, antifreeze, windshield wiper fluid, pesticides, furniture polish, gasoline, kerosene and lamp oil. Be especially vigilant when there is a change in routine. Holidays, visits to and from grandparents’ homes, and other special events may bring greater risk of poisoning if the usual safeguards are defeated or not in place.

  • Store medicine, cleaning and laundry products, (including detergent packets) paints/varnishes and pesticides in their original packaging in locked cabinets or containers, out of sight and reach of children. It is best to use traditional liquid or powder laundry detergents instead of detergent packets until all children who live in or visit your home are at least 6 years old. Never call medicine “candy".
  • Destroy old medications.
  • Safety latches that automatically lock when you close a cabinet door can help to keep children away from dangerous products, but there is always a chance the device will malfunction or the child will defeat it. The safest place to store poisonous products is somewhere a child can't see or reach or see.
  • Purchase and keep all medicines in containers with safety caps. Discard unused medication. Note that safety caps are designed to be child resistant but are not fully child proof. Never refer to medicine as “candy” or another appealing name.
  • Check the label each time you give a child medicine to ensure proper dosage. For liquid medicines, use the dosing device that came with the medicine. Never use a kitchen spoon.
  • Keep all potential poisons up high and out of the reach of children, preferably in a locked storage container. Set up safe storage areas for medications, household cleaners, and chemicals like antifreeze.
  • Keep foods and household products separated.
  • Teach family and kids to never put anything in their mouths unless they know it’s safe to ingest.
  • Keep products in original containers. Do not use food storage containers to store poisonous substances (i.e. plant food in a drink bottle).
  • Always read the label before using a product that may be poisonous.
  • Never mix household products together. For example, mixing bleach and ammonia can result in toxic gases.
  • Wear protective clothing (gloves, long sleeves, long pants, socks, shoes) if you spray pesticides or other chemicals.
  • Turn on the fan and open windows when using chemical products such as household cleaners.
  • If you use an e-cigarette, keep the liquid nicotine refills locked up out of children's reach and only buy refills that use child-resistant packaging. A small amount of liquid nicotine spilled on the skin or swallowed can be fatal to a child. See Liquid Nicotine Used in E-Cigarettes Can Kill Children.
  • Keep natural gas-powered appliances, furnaces, and coal, wood or kerosene stoves in safe working order.
  • Maintain working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
  • Secure remote controls, key fobs, greeting cards, and musical children’s books. These and other devices may contain small button-cell batteries that can cause injury if ingested.
  • Know the names of all plants in your home and yard. If you have young children or pets, consider removing those that are poisonous.
  • Stay away from areas that have been sprayed recently with pesticides or fertilizer.
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Dizziness
  • Unconsciousness
  • Foaming or burning of the mouth
  • Cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Swallowed poison: Take the item away from the child, and have the child spit out any remaining substance. If a person is able to swallow, give about 2 ounces of water to drink. Do not make your child vomit. Do not use syrup of ipecac.
  • Swallowed battery: If your child has swallowed a button-cell battery or a battery is lodged in his or her nose, ear, or throat, seek treatment in a hospital emergency department immediately. Serious tissue damage can occur in as little as 2 hours.
  • Skin poison: Remove the child’s clothes and rinse the skin with lukewarm water for at least 15 minutes.
  • Eye poison: Flush the child’s eye by holding the eyelid open and pouring a steady stream of room temperature water into the inner corner for 15 minutes.
  • Inhaled poison: Get fresh air as soon as possible.
  • Poisonous fumes: Take the child outside or into fresh air immediately. If the child has stopped breathing, start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and do not stop until the child breathes on his or her own, or until someone can take over.

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