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Quick Facts

Overview of Poisoning

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

What is poisoning?

Poisoning is sickness that results from swallowing, breathing in, or touching something toxic (poisonous). In the United States, more than 2 million people each year are poisoned. This includes people who accidentally overdose on illegal drugs or try to commit suicide. Most people don't get very sick. However, some people get very sick and may die.

  • For safety, keep medicines and cleaning products in their original containers

  • Store medicines and cleaning products out of children's reach

  • Poisoning can be minor or life-threatening

  • Be careful to take medicines as instructed

  • Ask a doctor whether you can safely take more than one medicine at a time

What things are poisonous?

Almost anything can be harmful in large amounts. Even prescription and over-the-counter medicines can be dangerous if you overdose.

It's hard to list everything that could be poisonous. But it's safe to say that if something isn't meant for you to eat, drink, breathe, or put on your body, you shouldn't use it. However, there are many things around your house that aren't dangerous. This is important to know because children often taste or eat things they find.

Who is at risk for poisoning?

People at higher risk for poisoning include:

  • Young children, because they tend to put things in their mouth

  • Older people, who can be confused and mix up their medicines

  • Workers whose jobs involve chemicals

  • People who abuse drugs, particularly opioid drugs such as oxycodone, heroin, and fentanyl

  • Suicidal people, who may take poisons on purpose—people who do this or think about it should seek help for their mental health

What are the symptoms of poisoning?

Symptoms vary depending on the type and amount of poison. Symptoms can also vary depending on your age and health. You might have symptoms right away. Or it could take hours or days to notice any symptoms.

Possible symptoms of poisoning:

  • Throwing up

  • Trouble breathing

  • Confusion, sleepiness, or being unconscious

  • Belly pain

Some poisons may not cause symptoms until they damage parts of your body, like your kidneys or liver.

What should I do if someone has been poisoned?

If someone seems very sick and may have been poisoned, call for emergency medical assistance (911 in most areas of the United States).

If a person who may have been poisoned doesn't seem very sick, call the poison control center for advice (1-800-222-1222 in the United States). Often people can be treated at home. The World Health Organization lists poison centers outside the United States.

If someone is poisoned:

  • Try to find out what the poison is

  • Find out how much poison was swallowed

  • If the poison is a cleaning product or medicine, bring the original container with you to the hospital so doctors can look at it

Don't try to make the person throw up unless a doctor or the poison control center tells you to.

For a chemical spill:

  • Remove any clothing, shoes, or jewelry that touched the chemical

  • Wash skin well with soap and water

  • If the poison affected your eyes, flush them with water or saline (germ-free salt water)

If you're poisoned by a toxic gas, get into fresh air right away. If you're helping someone who's been poisoned by toxic chemicals or gases, avoid getting poisoned yourself. Only professionals with protective gear should go into an area with toxic chemicals or gases.

How do doctors diagnose poisoning?

Doctors will ask questions to figure out what the poison is and how much you swallowed. X-rays can help doctors see if certain poisons, such as metals, are in your body.

If you can't find the original container, doctors can identify pills by looking at the color and markings of any leftover pills.

How do doctors treat poisoning?

Most people who are poisoned will recover. Some people may need care in the hospital.

Over time, your body gets rid of most poisons on its own. Depending on the type of poison, doctors might:

  • Give you medicine to bring your heart rate and blood pressure back to normal

  • Put you on a breathing machine (respirator) to help you breathe

  • Give you activated charcoal, which can keep poisons you swallowed from getting into your blood

  • Give you medicine that works against a specific poison (antidote)

  • Use a special filter to remove poisons from your blood (a procedure called hemodialysis)

Unlike on TV, only a few poisons have antidotes. Fortunately, there's an antidote for opioid drugs (such as heroin). This antidote, naloxone, can save the life of someone who has overdosed on opioids.

How can I prevent poisoning?

  • Keep medicines in their original containers to prevent mix-ups

  • Keep household cleaners, medicines, and other possible poisons in places children can’t reach

  • Never put poisonous products in drinking cups or bottles

  • Follow instructions on medicines and household products

  • Throw out expired or unneeded medicines by hiding them in cat litter or other unappealing material, or call your pharmacy for advice on disposal

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