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A poison is a substance that has toxic effects and may injure you or make you sick if you are exposed to it. Poisons can be found everywhere, from simple household cleaners to cosmetics to houseplants to industrial chemicals. Even medicines that are taken in the wrong dose, at the wrong time, or by the wrong person can cause a toxic effect. Poisonous substances can hurt you if they are swallowed, inhaled, spilled on your skin, or splashed in your eyes. In most cases, any product that gives off fumes or is an aerosol that can be inhaled should be considered a possible poison. More than 90% of poisonings occur in the home.
Young children have the highest risk of poisoning because of their natural curiosity. More than half of poisonings in children occur in those who are younger than age 6. Some children will swallow just about anything, including unappetizing substances that are poisonous. When in doubt, assume the worst. Always believe a child or a witness, such as another child or a brother or sister, who reports that poison has been swallowed. Many poisonings occur when an adult who is using a poisonous product around children becomes distracted by the doorbell, a telephone, or some other interruption.
Young children are also at high risk for accidental poisoning from non-prescription and prescription medicines. Even though medicine bottles are packaged to prevent a child from opening them, be sure to keep all medicines away from where children can reach them.
Teenagers also have an increased risk of poisonings, both accidental and intentional, because of their risk-taking behaviour. Some teens experiment with poisonous substances such as by sniffing toxic glues or inhaling aerosol substances to get "high." About half of all poisonings in teens are classified as suicide attempts, which always requires medical evaluation.
Adults—especially older adults—are at risk for accidental and intentional poisonings from:
The symptoms of a suspected poisoning may vary depending on the person's age, the type of poisonous substance, the amount of poison involved, and how much time has passed since the poisoning occurred. Sometimes poison doesn't cause any symptoms. Some common symptoms that might point to a poisoning include:
Poison control centres, hospitals, or your doctor can give immediate advice in the case of a poisoning. Have the poison container with you so you can give complete information to the poison control centre, such as what the poison or substance is, how much was taken and when. Do not try to make the person vomit.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
Changes in behaviour that can be caused by poisoning can include:
Shock is a life-threatening condition that may quickly occur after a sudden illness or injury.
Adults and older children often have several symptoms of shock. These include:
Shock is a life-threatening condition that may occur quickly after a sudden illness or injury.
Babies and young children often have several symptoms of shock. These include:
Symptoms of difficulty breathing can range from mild to severe. For example:
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call 911 or other emergency services now.
Sometimes people don't want to call 911. They may think that their symptoms aren't serious or that they can just get someone else to drive them. But based on your answers, the safest and quickest way for you to get the care you need is to call 911 for medical transport to the hospital.
Based on your answers, you may need care right away.
Call the local poison control centre or your doctor today for more information.
Call your local poison control centre, hospital, or doctor immediately. Have the poison container with you so you can give complete information to the poison control centre. Do not try to make the person vomit.
The poison control centre will be able to help you quickly if you have the following information ready:
If the poison control centre recommends medical evaluation, take the product container or substance and any stomach contents that the person vomited to help doctors determine the seriousness of the poisoning.
Do not use syrup of ipecac. It is no longer used to treat poisonings. If you have syrup of ipecac in your home, call your pharmacist for instructions on how to dispose of it and throw away the container. Do not store anything else in the container.
Activated charcoal is also not used at home to treat poisonings.
The poison control centre has guidelines on what treatments are needed for all types of poisons.
If a poisoning was intentional, first get help as described above. Then check your local phone book or provincial website for suicide resources on getting help in your area.
Follow the instructions you received from your doctor or the poison control centre about seeking medical evaluation. Call your doctor if any of the following occurs during home treatment:
About 80% of poisonings occur in children ages 1 to 4 years. Develop poison prevention habits early, before your child is crawling. Babies grow so fast that sometimes they are crawling and walking before you have time to protect them.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor treat poisoning by being prepared to answer the following questions. Be sure to bring the poisonous substance with you.
Adaptation Date: 3/2/2022
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
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