How to Recognize and Treat Poisoning

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In the United States, poisoning is the leading cause of injury death (the combination of planned or unplanned deaths) among individuals 1 to 44 years of age. Poisons are substances that can injure or impair the body, even causing death. They can be ingested (swallowed), inhaled into the lungs, injected, or absorbed by the skin.

While poisoning can occur in children and adults, young children are most susceptible to ingesting poisons. They may also experience more severe symptoms due to their smaller body size.

Man experiences stomach pain in possible poisoning or overdose

Moyo Studio / Getty Images

Childhood poisonings often occur as a result of accidental ingestion of household chemicals, while adult poisonings are usually drug-related and result from unintentional drug overdose.

This article describes common types of poisoning and how to treat them.

Prevalence

Poisoning is a significant problem in the United States and is the leading cause of unintentional death, surpassing motor vehicle crashes. From 1999 to 2016, drug-poisoning death rates more than tripled, from 6.1 per 100,000 to 19.8 per 100,000 individuals.

Signs

The signs and symptoms of poisoning vary depending on the type of poison, how much poison was involved, and how the person was exposed. Signs and symptoms to be aware of include:

  • Dizziness, disorientation, drowsiness, and faintness
  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain
  • Rash
  • Sores or redness around the mouth
  • Drooling or foaming
  • Trouble breathing
  • Headache
  • Shaking
  • Seizures (uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain)

Common Types of Poisoning

The majority of poisonings are accidental and preventable. The five most common types of poisoning include food, carbon monoxide, household chemicals, alcohol, and drugs.

Food

Food poisoning is illness caused by food or water contaminated with pathogens (bacteria and viruses), parasites, or toxins. This can be caused by eating unwashed fruits and vegetables or eating raw meat, poultry, and seafood.

Depending on the type of food poisoning, symptoms can range from mild to severe. Common symptoms include an upset stomach, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever.

Seek Immediate Help

If you have or suspect food poisoning, seek immediate medical attention if you experience these severe symptoms:

  • Bloody diarrhea or diarrhea that lasts more than three days
  • Frequent vomiting (which can lead to severe dehydration)
  • High fever (temperature over 102 degrees, measured in your mouth)
  • Signs of dehydration (very dry mouth or throat, little or no urination, or dizziness)

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a toxic gas produced by the burning of gasoline, wood, propane, charcoal, and other fuel. CO has no taste, smell, or color. If you inhale too much CO into your lungs, a dangerous condition known as carbon monoxide poisoning can occur.

CO easily enters the body through the lungs. When CO enters your bloodstream, it binds with greater affinity to hemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout the body) than oxygen. This prevents oxygen from getting to tissues and cells, which can lead to serious tissue damage, even death.

Approximately 50,000 people in the United States visit the emergency department each year due to accidental CO poisoning. The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion. Serious complications such as brain, lung, and heart damage, and even death can occur.

Household Chemicals

Many household chemicals are poisonous, even if you are using them as directed. Household cleaners should also never be mixed, as they can create toxic gases.

For example, mixing bleach and ammonia produces chloramine gas, which can irritate the nose, throat, and lungs. In large concentrations, inhaling chloramine can lead to death.

Common household chemicals include antifreeze, motor oil, latex paint, batteries, all-purpose cleaners, bleach, pesticides, and more. Ingestion or inhalation of these chemicals can cause serious to life-threatening conditions, even death.

Call Poison Control

If you think that you or a loved one has ingested household chemicals, don't wait for signs that something is wrong. Call Poison Control right away at 800-222-1222

Alcohol

Alcohol poisoning occurs when large quantities of alcohol are ingested in a short period of time (binge drinking). This can lead to a wide range of symptoms and complications, including seizures, cyanosis (blue coloration due to lack of oxygen in the blood), and hypothermia (low body temperature).

Alcohol poisoning is a serious condition. A high percentage of blood alcohol can cause the areas of your brain that support breathing, heart rate, and other critical functions to begin shutting down.

Drugs

Drug poisoning (or drug overdose) is the most common type of poisoning in adults. It occurs when drugs are abused or taken in large amounts.

When some drugs such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) are taken in too high of a dose, they can overwhelm the liver and render it unable to metabolize (break down) drugs. In doing so, drug poisoning can alter the way the liver functions, causing irrevocable liver damage or failure.

Excessive amounts of other drugs may damage various organ systems (such as the kidneys) or suppress functions such as breathing or blood circulation.

Treatment

Depending on the type of poisoning you have, treatments will vary. It is essential that a healthcare provider properly assess the person to determine the correct treatment. Possible treatments that can be used to treat poisoning include:

  • Activated charcoal: Activated charcoal is an odorless and tasteless black powder mixed with water. It can bind to a variety of substances so they won't be absorbed from the digestive tract into the blood. You can either drink the activated charcoal in a solution form or it can be administered through a nasogastric tube (a tube placed through the nose to the stomach).
  • Antidotes: An antidote is a medication that neutralizes or counteracts the effects of a poison in the body. Antidotes may be administered through an intravenous (IV) line that is inserted into a vein in the arm. Not all toxins have an antidote.
  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics are medications that stop or kill the growth of bacteria. Your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics for some types of bacterial food poisoning.
  • Breathing pure oxygen: If you experience CO poisoning, you may be asked to breathe in pure oxygen through a mask placed over your nose and mouth. If you can't breathe on your own, a machine (ventilator) may do the breathing for you.

In severe cases of CO poisoning, hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) may be used. This therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a chamber with air pressure 2 to 3 times higher than normal. In doing so, it speeds the replacement of carbon monoxide with oxygen in your blood.

Prevention

You can take steps to prevent accidental poisoning:

  • Keep all household chemicals in their original bottles: To prevent unnecessary exposure to chemicals, do not reuse or transfer common household chemicals from one container to another, especially containers made to store food.
  • Never mix chemicals: Mixing bleach and ammonia can create toxic gases known as chloramine that irritate the nose, throat, and lungs. Inhaling large amounts of chloramine can lead to death.
  • Limit alcohol consumption: Moderation is key. Moderate alcohol consumption on days when alcohol is consumed is two drinks or less for men or one drink or less for women. Also, avoid binge drinking or drinking alcohol on an empty stomach.
  • Read medication labels carefully: Before taking medication, carefully read over the instructions, ingredients, and warning labels. Be sure to take medication as directed and never more than what you need.
  • Dispose of old medicines: Throw away unused, unneeded, or expired prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, and supplements. Mix them with coffee grounds or cat litter before throwing them to make them hard to find and unappealing for children or pets. You can also participate in National Prescription Drug Take Back Day or local programs sponsored in your community by pharmacies, health organizations, or law enforcement.
  • Install a carbon monoxide detector: CO is a little lighter than air. Place detectors on the ceiling or on a wall about 5 feet above the floor. Also, place them away from fireplaces or any other appliance that has a flame as these can set off the detector. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a carbon monoxide detector on each floor, especially near the sleeping areas.
  • Clean, separate, cook, and chill foods: To prevent food poisoning, wash fruits and veggies thoroughly and keep them separate from raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs (which can easily spread germs). Cook foods to their desired internal temperature and refrigerate foods promptly (to prevent the growth of bacteria).

Summary

Poisons are substances that can cause harm when swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. Common types of poisoning include food, carbon monoxide, household chemicals, alcohol, and drugs.

While poison prevention can prevent long-term health effects or be lifesaving, several treatments are available to counteract the type of poisoning a person may have. These range from administering different medications to inhaling pure oxygen.

A Word From Verywell

The sooner you recognize poison symptoms, the better the outcome. In case of poisoning, seek medical attention by calling the National Poison Control Hotline at 800-222-1222, even if you haven't experienced any symptoms.

Be ready to give complete information to the poison control center, including what the poison or substance is, how much was taken, and when it was taken. Additionally, do not try to induce vomiting, as that may cause more harm to your body.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the most common type of poisoning?

    According to the National Data Poison System, most unintentional poisoning deaths in the United States are attributable to misuse and abuse of analgesic drugs (painkillers).

  • What are the long-term effects of poisoning?

    Depending on the type of poisoning, long-term effects of poisoning can include brain damage, kidney failure, cardiac complications, depression, miscarriages, and memory problems.

  • How long does it take for poison symptoms to appear?

    The time it takes for poison symptoms to appear depends on the type of poisoning you have. Poison symptoms can appear within minutes to as long as a week.

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16 Sources
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