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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Common Poisonings

Poisonings are one of the leading causes of injury and death in the United States, with 2.4 million exposures to poisonous agents reported each year. Most unintentional poisonings involve children younger than the age of 4 years; reasons suggested why young children are at highest risk of poisonings include:

  • They cannot read (or understand) warning labels, so "DANGER" may be meaningless to a young child.
  • They like to imitate adults. However, young children do not always know how to use the products properly. In fact, they often will use them in dangerous ways, unaware of the potential for harm.
  • They are naturally curious and have strong tendencies to put objects in their mouths as a way of learning about and exploring their worlds.

Most poisonings are caused by ingestion of common household products or medications, particularly when someone else is using the products. Children are attracted to the colors, scents and labels of the product and want to take the opportunity to investigate further. This can happen if you are interrupted unexpectedly by the doorbell or telephone while using a product.

Consider the following scenario: You are cleaning the coffee table and the telephone rings. Your toddler is sitting on the carpet playing with her toys. You leave the uncapped bottle of furniture oil on the table and walk away for a few seconds to answer the telephone. Your daughter notices the bottle and thinks it looks very much like apple juice, so she takes a drink. As you can see, within seconds a child can be poisoned.

Poisonings in children are most common at mealtimes, when children are hungry or thirsty and parents are busy preparing meals. Most young children will grab at anything they can reach and immediately put it in their mouths, but especially when they are hungry. Improperly stored chemicals that are not well out of the reach and sight of children are poisonings waiting to happen.

In addition to household chemicals, frequently used over-the-counter and prescription drugs cause accidental poisonings each year. Topical (skin) creams and ointments, cosmetics, and cologne also can be dangerous. Adults absolutely must keep all medicine, including vitamins, minerals and other nutritional supplements, stored out of the reach and sight of children. Always ask for and use child-resistant caps and keep all products in their original containers.

Children of all ages are at risk of accidental poisonings, though accidental poisonings typically occur in different settings, depending on the age of the child:

  • Infants may be given the wrong medication or an incorrect dose, resulting in accidental poisoning. For example, acetaminophen (Tylenol) is one of the most commonly misused childhood medications. Be sure to read the directions on the package label carefully before giving any medication to a child. If you are not sure about what you have read about a medication, call your doctor with questions.
  • Crawlers are actively exploring their worlds and tend to put various objects in their mouths. Crawlers are most likely to be poisoned by objects found close to or on the ground, such as pills, buttons, coins, small batteries and cleaning products stored under the sink.
  • Toddlers and preschoolers are able to walk, climb, and find medications and chemicals stored in cabinets above the ground. Look-alike products may easily fool them. They can mistake medications for candy, and household chemicals for food and drink. For instance, pseudoephedrine (decongestant) tablets look very much like small red cinnamon candies, and windshield wiper fluid looks like a berry-flavored soft drink. Children at this age also are more likely to imitate adults, so you should avoid taking any medications in front of children.

Ipecac. The American Academy of Pediatrics no longer recommends that syrup of ipecac be kept in the home in case of accidental poisoning because other more effective treatments are available. Because ipecac causes vomiting, it sometimes has been used to reduce the risk of injury after certain poisonings. However, it can be dangerous when used incorrectly. If you live far from the nearest hospital (more than 20 to 30 minutes away), your doctor still may recommend ipecac, which soon will be available only by prescription. Remember that ipecac should never be given unless recommended by the poison control center or a physician. Some swallowed substances are very dangerous going down into the stomach and can cause even more harm if vomited up.

Activated Charcoal. Emergency departments often use activated charcoal in treating poisonings because it binds certain poisons, helping them to pass harmlessly through the intestines. A recent study showed that with proper instruction by the local poison control center, people can safely use activated charcoal in the home. Having charcoal on hand for possible emergency use may save lives because charcoal is an effective treatment for many poisons, but it usually works best when given quickly after an exposure. Activated charcoal is available at your local pharmacy. It also should not be given unless recommended by a physician or the poison control center.

To be best prepared for any accidental poisoning, be sure you:

  • Post the telephone numbers of your doctor and the poison control center (1-800-222-1222) next to every telephone in the house.
  • If recommended by your doctor, keep activated charcoal or ipecac in the medicine cabinet (out of reach of children), but never use them unless instructed to do so by your doctor or the poison control center.
  • Make sure all babysitters know where to find these emergency numbers and supplies.
What To Do

If you suspect your child has been poisoned by mouth:
  • Check the mouth and remove any remaining poison.
  • Contact your doctor or the poison control center immediately.
  • Do not give anything by mouth unless directed to do so by a health professional.

If you suspect your child has inhaled a poison:

  • Get the child to fresh air immediately.
  • Contact your doctor or the poison control center immediately.

If you suspect a poison has come in contact with your child's skin:

  • Remove any contaminated clothing.
  • Rinse the skin with running water for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Contact your doctor or the poison control center for any further instructions.

If you suspect a poison has gotten into your child's eye:

  • Do not let the child rub the eye.
  • Flood the eye with cool or lukewarm water poured from a large glass, while gently holding the eyelids open. Repeat for 15 minutes. Do not hold the child's head under a faucet.
  • Contact your doctor or the poison control center for any further instructions.

If any type of poisoning occurs, bring the product (poison) container with you to the telephone before calling your doctor or the local poison control center. Be prepared to tell them:

  • Your name, location and telephone number
  • Name of product
  • How much of the product you think was ingested
  • Victim's age, weight and current condition
  • Time poisoning happened
How To Prevent

Poisonings can be prevented. Follow these rules to help prevent poisonings (see also Childproofing Your Home ):

  • Store all chemicals (for example, cleaning products, cosmetics, personal care products, pesticides, antifreeze and windshield washer fluid) and all medications (including vitamins and nutritional supplements) out of the reach and sight of children in all rooms of your house. Even child-resistant containers are not childproof, so never leave hazardous chemicals or medications in sight or within the reach of children.
  • Never leave young children unattended. Remember that it only takes a second for a child to be poisoned.
  • Use child-resistant locks on all cabinets and doors that hold chemicals and medications.
  • Keep purses and diaper bags out of reach of children.
  • While at other people's houses, watch children very carefully and assume the house is not poison-proofed. Many poisonings involve prescription drugs belonging to someone the child does not live with, most often grandparents.
  • Store household products and medicines in their original containers. Remember that original labels often contain first aid information.
  • Never store dangerous products in containers from which people eat or drink, or they may be mistaken for food.
  • Read and carefully follow directions before using household chemicals or over-the-counter and prescription medicines.
  • Never call medicine "candy." Avoid taking any medicine in front of children.
  • Some common household and yard plants can be poisonous if eaten or ingested. Identify any that may be in or around your home, and remove them.
  • Teach your children not to eat leaves, berries, mushrooms or plants that they find outside.
Last updated December 3, 2009