Poisoning can occur when you inhale, swallow, or touch something that makes you very ill. Some poisons can cause death.
Poisoning most often occurs from:
- Taking too much medicine or taking medicine not meant for you
- Inhaling or swallowing household or other types of chemicals
- Absorbing chemicals through the skin
- Inhaling gas, such as carbon monoxide
How to Tell if Someone has Been Poisoned
Signs or symptoms of poisoning may include:
- Very large or very small pupils
- Rapid or very slow heartbeat
- Rapid or very slow breathing
- Drooling or very dry mouth
- Stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Sleepiness or hyperactivity
- Slurred speech
- Uncoordinated movements or difficulty walking
- Difficulty urinating
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Burns or redness of the lips and mouth, caused by drinking poison
- Chemical-smelling breath
- Chemical burns or stains on the person, clothing, or area around the person
- Chest pain
- Loss of vision
- Spontaneous bleeding
- Empty pill bottles or pills scattered around
Other health problems can also cause some of these symptoms. However, if you think someone has been poisoned, you should act quickly.
Not all poisons cause symptoms right away. Sometimes symptoms come on slowly or occur hours after exposure.
What to do in Case of Poisoning
The Poison Control Center recommends taking these steps if someone is poisoned.
WHAT TO DO FIRST
- Stay calm. Not all medicines or chemicals cause poisoning.
- If the person has passed out or is not breathing, call 9-1-1 or your local emergency number right away.
- For an inhaled poison such as carbon monoxide, get the person into fresh air right away.
- For poison on the skin, take off any clothing touched by the poison. Rinse the person's skin with running water for 15 to 20 minutes.
- For poison in the eyes, rinse the person's eyes with running water for 15 to 20 minutes.
- For poison that has been swallowed, DO NOT give the person activated charcoal. DO NOT give children ipecac syrup. DO NOT give the person anything before talking with the Poison Control Center.
Call the Poison Control Center emergency number at 1-800-222-1222. DO NOT wait until the person has symptoms before you call. Try to have the following information ready:
- The container or bottle from the medicine or poison
- The person's weight, age, and any health problems
- The time the poisoning occurred
- How the poisoning happened, such as by mouth, inhaling, or skin or eye contact
- Whether the person vomited
- What type of first aid you have given
- Where the person is located
The center is available anywhere in the United States. 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. You can call and talk with a poison expert to find out what to do in case of a poisoning. Often you will be able to get help over the phone and not have to go to the emergency room.
What to Expect at the Emergency Room
If you need to go to the emergency room, the health care provider will check your temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure.
You may need other tests, including:
- Blood and urine tests
- ECG (electrocardiogram)
- Procedures that look inside your airways (bronchoscopy) or esophagus (swallowing tube) and stomach (endoscopy)
To keep more poison from being absorbed, you may receive:
- Activated charcoal
- A tube through the nose into the stomach
- A laxative
Other treatments may include:
- Rinsing or irrigating the skin and eyes
- Breathing support, including a tube through the mouth into the windpipe (trachea) and breathing machine
- Fluids through the vein (IV)
- Medicines to reverse the effects of the poison
How to Prevent Poisoning
Take these steps to help prevent poisoning.
- Never share prescription medicines.
- Take your medicines as directed by your health care provider. DO NOT take extra medicine or take it more often than prescribed.
Tell your provider and pharmacist about all the medicines you take.
- Read labels for over-the counter medicines. Always follow the directions on the label.
- Never take medicine in the dark. Be sure you can see what you are taking.
- Never mix household chemicals. Doing so can cause dangerous gases.
- Always store household chemicals in the container they came in. DO NOT reuse containers.
- Keep all medicines and chemicals locked up or out of the reach of children.
- Read and follow the labels on household chemicals. Wear clothing or gloves to protect you when handling, if directed.
- Install carbon monoxide detectors. Make sure they have fresh batteries.
Kelig K. General Approach to the Poisoned Patient. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 147.
Nayak Z, Ronda J. Poisonings. In: Enghorm B, Flerlage J, eds. Johns Hopkins: The Harriet Lane Handbook. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2015:chap 2.
Nelson LS, Ford MD. Acute poisoning. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 110.
Review Date 1/15/2016
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.