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Hair tonic poisoning

Hair tonic is a product used to style the hair. Hair tonic poisoning occurs when someone swallows this substance.

This article is for information only. DO NOT use it to treat or manage an actual poison exposure. If you or someone you are with has an exposure, call your local emergency number (such as 911), or your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States.

Poisonous Ingredient

Ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is the harmful ingredient in hair tonic.

Symptoms

Most symptoms are from the alcohol in these products. They are similar to the feeling of being drunk. Symptoms may include:

Home Care

Seek medical help right away. DO NOT make the person throw up unless poison control or a health care provider tells you to. If the chemical is on the skin or in the eyes, flush with lots of water for at least 15 minutes.

If the person swallowed the hair tonic, give them water or milk right away, unless a provider tells you not to. DO NOT give anything to drink if the person has symptoms that make it hard to swallow. These include:

  • Vomiting
  • Convulsions
  • A decreased level of alertness

Before Calling Emergency

Have this information ready:

  • Person's age, weight, and condition
  • Name of the product (ingredients, if known)
  • Time it was swallowed
  • Amount swallowed

Poison Control

Your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States. They will give you further instructions.

This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

What to Expect at the Emergency Room

Take the container with you to the hospital, if possible.

The provider will measure and monitor the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Symptoms will be treated.

The person may receive:

  • Activated charcoal
  • Blood and urine tests
  • Breathing support, including a tube through the mouth into the lungs, and a breathing machine (ventilator).
  • Chest x-ray.
  • EKG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
  • Endoscopy. Camera placed down the throat to look for burns in the esophagus and the stomach.
  • Fluids through a vein (by IV)
  • Laxatives
  • Medicines to treat symptoms
  • Tube through the mouth into the stomach to wash out the stomach (gastric lavage).

Outlook (Prognosis)

How well someone does depends on how much hair tonic they swallowed and how quickly they receive treatment. The faster medical help is given, the better the chance for recovery. Swallowing a large amount of hair tonic can cause liver failure.

References

Finnell, JT. Alcohol-related disease. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2014:chap 185.

Zosel AE. General approach to the poisoned patient. In: Adams JG, ed. Emergency Medicine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:chap 143.

Update Date 10/16/2015

Updated by: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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