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Poisoning

Key points

  • Poisons are harmful substances to your body.
  • They can be found in everyday products such as medicines (if overdosed), carbon monoxide and household cleaning products.
  • The symptoms of poisoning are varied and their severity depends on the type, the amount and how the poison was taken.
  • If you or someone has been poisoned, it’s vital that you seek emergency help straight away.

FAQs

Poisons (also called toxins) are substances that can harm your body. They can be swallowed, inhaled, absorbed or injected. Accidental poisoning may be caused by household or environmental accidents, exposure to harmful substances, or accidentally overdosing on a harmful substance, such as paracetamol

Poisons can cause temporary or permanent damage, and if untreated, they can sometimes be fatal.

About poisons

Many common household substances can be poisonous.

  • Medicines may be safe at the recommended dose, but can be poisonous if you take an overdose.
  • Cleaning and washing products such as bleach and dishwasher tablets/powder can be harmful even in small amounts if you don't use them correctly.
  • Other household chemicals such as plant food, paints, solvents, insect sprays and weedkiller are often poisonous.
  • Some toiletries such as hair dyes, chemical treatments and nail varnish remover can be harmful.
  • Gases, such as carbon monoxide, can be poisonous.

Many household products have an orange panel on the back to warn you that they can be harmful if you don't use them correctly. Other products may have a risk phrase, such as 'harmful if swallowed' or 'irritating to eyes'. Always follow the instructions given on the product label when using any chemicals or household products.

You can also be poisoned by:

  • bites from animals, including snakes
  • insect bites or stings
  • fish or jellyfish stings
  • germs in your food (food poisoning), such as bacteria and mould that produce toxins (a toxin is a poison produced by a living organism)
  • wild plants, berries or mushrooms, which can be irritating to your skin or harmful if you swallow them
  • alcohol poisoning or an overdose from drug abuse

Symptoms of poisoning

Different poisons affect your body in different ways and can take effect quickly or over time. The risk depends on a variety of factors including:

  • the amount swallowed or injected
  • the length of exposure (through ingestion, inhalation or skin contact)
  • the time since exposure
  • the age and weight of the person affected

As such, the range of symptoms can be broad and varied. If someone suddenly becomes ill for no apparent reason and has unexplained symptoms, you should consider poisoning a possibility. It’s particularly likely if you find him or her near a potentially poisonous substance.

Symptoms of poisoning can include:

  • feeling sick or vomiting, sometimes vomiting blood
  • abdominal (tummy) pain, diarrhoea
  • dizziness, weakness or drowsiness
  • fever or chills (shivering)
  • fast or irregular pulse
  • headache, confusion or irritability
  • pain or burning around or on the affected area
  • double or blurred vision
  • seizures (fits)
  • stupor (being sleepy or unresponsive) or unconsciousness

What to do if someone has been poisoned

Being poisoned can be life-threatening. Giving appropriate first aid, as described below, can help minimise the harm to the person who is poisoned. For simplicity, we have referred to the person (casualty) in the male gender throughout.

First, assess the situation and the risk you're in – don't put yourself in danger.

If you think someone has swallowed, injected or inhaled a poison, or taken a drug overdose and appears to be unconscious, try to rouse him. If the person responds, you shouldn't move him. Instead, try to find out what's wrong, make sure his airway is open and that he can breathe comfortably and you can monitor his condition. Call for emergency help or preferably get someone to call for you.

If he is unresponsive, you should first shout for help and then open the airway by tilting his head back and lifting his chin. If it’s possible to leave him in the same position to open his airway then do so. However, if it isn’t, turn him onto his back and then open his airway.

Ask someone to phone for an ambulance, and if necessary the fire brigade. If you're on your own, you should do this yourself. Be ready to give as much of the following information as you can to the paramedics and/or the doctor or nurse at the hospital.

  • The name of what was swallowed, injected or inhaled if you know it. If possible, keep the container and make a note of how much has been taken.
  • The estimated time that the poison was taken or used.
  • Whether or not the person has vomited.
  • Whether you think it was accidental or deliberate.
  • Whether the person has any chronic illnesses (eg, heart disease) or takes any medicines (if you know).

If the person is unconscious and breathing normally, you should put him into the recovery position. Check his breathing regularly until help arrives.

If the person is unconscious and isn't breathing normally, you should perform emergency resuscitation (CPR), but only if you know how. If you think the poison was swallowed, use the mouth-to-nose method, or preferably, use a pocket mask or face shield for rescue breathing. This way, you avoid any contact with traces of poison or vomit that might remain around the person's mouth or nose.

If you think the person has inhaled poisonous fumes, don't expose yourself to the person's breath and use chest compressions only. You should continue at a rate of 100 to 120 compressions per minute. Don't stop unless the person begins breathing normally, shows signs of regaining consciousness, such as coughing or their opening eyes, or qualified help arrives.

If the person has pills, fluids or any substance in his mouth, try to get him to spit them out. You can give them to the hospital staff to help identify the cause of poisoning.
Don't try to make the person sick as vomiting can cause even more damage. If the person has been sick, collect a sample of the vomit to take to hospital. This may help staff identify the poison.

Carbon monoxide poisoning

Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless, tasteless gas. It's produced by incomplete burning of fuels, including gas, wood or petrol (eg, indoor heating systems, car engines, fires and cooking appliances).

Dangerous levels of carbon monoxide can build up if equipment (eg, a boiler) is faulty or poorly maintained, or by burning fuels in an enclosed space.

Carbon monoxide is absorbed through your lungs into your blood. It reduces the blood's ability to carry oxygen around your body. The early symptoms can sometimes be confused with flu, tiredness or food poisoning. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can include feeling sick, dizziness, headache, drowsiness and poor concentration. It can result in chest pain, changes to your breathing and heart rate, loss of consciousness and eventually death.

If you suspect that you or someone else is affected by carbon monoxide poisoning, leave the area and seek urgent medical attention. If it’s possible and safe to do so, try and help the casualty to a safer area.

The treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning involves breathing pure oxygen (oxygen therapy) to help replace the carbon monoxide in the blood.

For information about how to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning in your home, see our frequently asked questions.

Contamination of the skin or eyes

Chemicals can burn or irritate your skin or eyes. If you spill a harmful chemical on yourself you should:

  • remove any contaminated clothing
  • run the affected area under cold water for 20 minutes, making sure the chemical doesn’t run on to other areas of your skin
  • seek urgent medical attention

If you spill a chemical into your eye, then you should flush your eye with water or sterile fluid for at least 10 minutes. You should hold a pad over your eye and seek urgent medical attention.

If you're treating someone else, wear gloves, an apron and face protection, if necessary.

Always read the label and follow the manufacturer's instructions and first aid advice when using chemicals or household products.

Prevention of poisoning

You can reduce the likelihood of accidental poisoning in your home by taking the following steps.

  • Store all medicines, vitamins and potentially poisonous substances – such as household cleaning products – in their original containers with a clear label. Keep them in an area that is out of sight and reach of children.
  • Check your garden for poisonous plants and remove them. Children should be taught not to eat any part of a growing plant. Keep gardening products that may be poisonous out of sight and reach of children.
  • Have your boiler and gas appliances serviced regularly to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, and make sure that rooms have adequate ventilation. Install carbon monoxide alarms in your home.
  • Don't block air vents, flues or chimneys and don't have indoor fires or stoves without proper ventilation to the outdoors.

Appropriate first aid can greatly improve a person's chances of a full recovery. You can learn about providing first aid in a wide range of accidents and emergencies by taking a course. Several organisations offer first aid courses, including vital instructions on CPR.

 

Produced by Natalie Heaton, Bupa Health Information Team, May 2013.

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For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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