Poisoning

Poisoning is when a person is exposed to a substance that can damage their health or put their life in danger.

Information written and reviewed by Certified Doctors.

Contents

Introduction

Poisoning is when a person is exposed to a substance that can damage their health or put their life in danger.

Poisoning is a common health problem. Most cases of poisoning happen at home and children under five have the highest risk of accidental poisoning.

In around one in four reported cases, the person intentionally poisoned themselves as an act of suicide.

Signs and symptoms of poisoning

The symptoms of poisoning will depend on the type of poison and the amount taken in, but general things to look out for include:

  • vomiting
  • stomach pains
  • high temperature
  • drowsiness and fainting fits

If a child suddenly develops such symptoms, they may have been poisoned, especially if they are drowsy and confused.

Read more about the symptoms of poisoning.

What to do

If you suspect that someone has taken an overdose or has been poisoned do not try to treat them yourself. Get medical help immediately.

If they do not appear to be seriously ill then call your doctor.

If they are showing signs of being seriously ill, such as vomiting, loss of consciousness, drowsiness or seizures (fits), call for an ambulance or take the person to your local Emergency department.

In serious cases, it may be necessary for the person to stay in hospital for treatment. Most people admitted to hospital because of poisoning will survive.

Read more about what to do if you think someone has been poisoned.

Types of poisons

Poisons can be swallowed, absorbed through the skin, inhaled, splashed into the eyes, or injected.

Often, the most common way a person is poisoned is by taking an overdose of medication. This can include both over-the-counter medications such as paracetamol and prescription medications such as antidepressants.

Other potential poisons include:

  • household products such as bleach
  • cosmetic items such as nail polish
  • some types of plants and fungi
  • certain types of chemicals and pesticides
  • carbon monoxide
  • poorly prepared or cooked food, and food that has gone mouldy or been contaminated with bacteria from raw meat (food poisoning)
  • alcohol, if an excessive amount is consumed in a short period (alcohol poisoning)
  • insect stings
  • snake bites

Read more about the causes of poisoning.

Preventing poisoning

There are several steps you can take to reduce your or your child’s risk of poisoning.

These include carefully reading the patient information leaflet that comes with your medication and making sure any poisonous substances are locked away out of the sight and reach of your children.

Read more about preventing poisoning.

Symptoms

The symptoms of poisoning depend on the substance and the amount you take in.

Some poisonous substances, such as carbon monoxide, interfere with the blood's ability to carry oxygen. Others, such as bleach, burn and irritate the digestive system.

Parents and carers should be aware of sudden, unexplained illness in young children, particularly if they are drowsy or unconscious, as poisoning could be the cause.

If you suspect that someone has swallowed a poisonous substance, seek immediate medical advice. Read more about what to do if you think someone has been poisoned.

General symptoms

General symptoms of poisoning can include:

  • feeling sick
  • being sick
  • diarrhoea
  • stomach pain
  • drowsiness, dizziness or weakness
  • high temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) or above
  • chills (shivering)
  • loss of appetite
  • headache
  • irritability
  • difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • breathing difficulties
  • producing more saliva than normal
  • skin rash
  • blue lips and skin (cyanosis)
  • burns around the nose or mouth
  • double or blurred vision
  • mental confusion
  • seizures (fits)
  • loss of consciousness
  • coma (in severe cases)

Signs of a medication or drug overdose

Medication overdoses are the most common type of poisoning in the UK. If you take too much of a medicine, you may experience symptoms specific to the medication taken, as well as the more general symptoms listed above.

Some of the most common medications or drugs involved in cases of poisoning are listed below.

Paracetamol

Paracetamol is a widely used over-the-counter painkiller.

Specific signs of paracetamol poisoning include:

  • yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice)
  • loss of co-ordination
  • low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia), which can cause symptoms including sweating, trembling and irritability

Aspirin

Aspirin was used as a painkiller in the past but is now increasingly used for its blood-thinning properties to prevent blood clots.

Specific signs of aspirin poisoning include:

  • sweating
  • rapid breathing
  • ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • temporary hearing loss

Tricyclic antidepressants

Tricyclic antidepressants are used to treat depression as well as a number of other mental health conditions such as panic disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Some types of tricyclic antidepressants can also be used to treat nerve pain.

Specific signs of poisoning with tricyclic antidepressants include:

  • excitability
  • dry mouth
  • large pupils
  • irregular or rapid heartbeat
  • low blood pressure, which can cause symptoms including lightheadedness and fainting

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

SSRIs are a newer type of antidepressant that are also used to treat a number of other mental health conditions such as OCD and anxiety disorder.

Specific signs of SSRI poisoning include:

  • feeling agitated
  • tremor (shaking)
  • uncontrolled movement of the eyes (nystagmus)
  • severe muscle tension

Beta-blockers

Beta-blockers are used to treat a number of conditions that affect the heart or blood such as high blood pressure, angina](yourmd:/condition/angina/introduction) and [heart failure.

Specific signs of poisoning with beta-blockers include:

  • low blood pressure, which can cause symptoms including lightheadedness and fainting
  • a slow heartbeat (below 60 beats a minute)

Calcium-channel blockers

Calcium-channel blockers are used in the treatment of high blood pressure and angina.

Specific signs of calcium-channel blocker poisoning include:

  • feeling agitated
  • low blood pressure, which can cause symptoms including lightheadedness and fainting
  • chest pain
  • a slow heartbeat (below 60 beats a minute)

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are a type of tranquiliser often used on a short-term basis to treat anxiety and sleeping problems (insomnia).

Specific signs of poisoning with benzodiazepines include:

  • co-ordination and speech difficulties
  • uncontrolled movement of the eyes (nystagmus)
  • shallow breathing

Opioids

Opioids are a type of stronger painkillers used to treat moderate to severe pain. Opioids include codeine and morphine as well as the illegal drug heroin.

Specific signs of opioid poisoning include:

  • small pupils
  • shallow breathing

Stimulant overdose

If you take too much of a stimulant-like drug such as cocaine, amphetamine, crack or ecstasy, overdose signs can include:

  • anxiety and paranoia (feeling that people are out to get you)
  • feeling restless or agitated
  • hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not real)
  • high temperature
  • chest pain
  • rapid breathing
  • irregular or fast heartbeat

Cannabis overdose

If you smoke (or eat) too much cannabis then you may experience the following symptoms:

  • paranoia
  • hallucinations
  • numbness in your arms and legs

Causes

Medications are often the most common cause of poisoning and are responsible for almost two in every three cases.

The medications most commonly linked to poisoning are:

  • paracetamol
  • aspirin
  • tricyclic antidepressants
  • selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
  • beta-blockers
  • calcium-channel blockers
  • benzodiazepines
  • opioids

However, all medications have the potential to be harmful if taken at too high a dose or taken by someone who has not been prescribed them.

Household products

The second most common cause of poisoning is household products, which account for up to one in four cases.

These can include:

  • cleaning products, such as bleach, caustic soda and disinfectant
  • cosmetics, such as baby oil, shampoo and nail varnish remover
  • DIY products, such as paint, glue and wallpaper paste
  • garden products, such as weedkiller and rat poison

Carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a poisonous, odourless gas produced by the incomplete burning of fuels, such as gas, wood or petrol. These types of fuels are used in many household appliances, such as heaters and cookers.

If appliances are not regularly serviced and well maintained, carbon monoxide can leak from them without you realising, which can cause loss of consciousness and death.

Read more about carbon monoxide poisoning.

Insects and snakes

Bees and wasps inject poison into your skin when they sting you, which can cause pain, swelling and itchiness.

Bites from poisonous snakes can cause diarrhoea and sickness. The adder is the only poisonous snake that lives in the UK.

How severely you are affected by a poisonous bite or sting depends on the amount of venom (poison) injected and whether you are allergic to it.

Read more about insect stings and snake bites.

Food

Food can sometimes cause poisoning if:

  • it goes mouldy
  • it becomes contaminated with bacteria from raw meat
  • it has not been prepared or cooked properly

Read more about food poisoning.

Alcohol

Drinking too much alcohol in a short space of time can also lead to poisoning.

Read more about alcohol poisoning.

Who is at risk?

Poisoning can affect anyone at any age, but children younger than five who are able to walk are most at risk.

This is because they often put things in their mouths without realising it may be harmful. Also, as their bodies are smaller, they are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of certain substances.

The most common substances involved in cases of child poisoning are:

  • cosmetics
  • cleaning products
  • painkillers
  • medications that come in cream, lotion or ointment form
  • foreign bodies, such as small coins or batteries
  • cough and cold medications
  • plants
  • vitamin supplements
  • antibiotics

Older children and adults who self-harm or have suicidal thoughts may intentionally poison themselves. It's estimated that around one in every four cases of poisoning are intentional.

Treatment

Being poisoned can be life threatening. If someone has swallowed a poisonous substance, do not try to treat them yourself. Seek medical help immediately.

If they are showing signs of being seriously ill, call for an ambulance or take them to your local A&E department.

Symptoms associated with serious poisoning include:

  • being sick
  • dizziness
  • sudden, noticeable heartbeats (palpitations)
  • breathing difficulties
  • uncontrollable restlessness or agitation
  • seizures (fits)
  • drowsiness or loss of consciousness

If a person does not appear to be seriously ill, call your doctor for advice.

Helping someone who is conscious

If you think someone has been seriously poisoned and they are still conscious, ask them to sit still and stay with them while you wait for medical help to arrive.

If they have been poisoned by swallowing something, try to get them to spit out anything remaining in their mouth.

If a harmful substance has splashed onto their skin or clothes, remove any contaminated items and wash the affected area thoroughly with warm or cool water.

Helping someone who is unconscious

If you think someone has swallowed poison and they appear to be unconscious, try to wake them and encourage them to spit out anything left in their mouth. Do not put your hand into their mouth and do not try to make them sick.

While you are waiting for medical help to arrive, lie the person on their side with a cushion behind their back and their upper leg pulled slightly forward, so they do not fall on their face or roll backwards. This is known as the recovery position.

Wipe any vomit away from their mouth and keep their head pointing down to allow any vomit to escape without them breathing it in or swallowing it. Do not give them anything to eat or drink.

If the person is not breathing or their heart has stopped, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if you know how to (read more about how to perform CPR).

Poisonous fumes

If you think someone has inhaled poisonous fumes, assess the situation first and do not put yourself in danger.

If the person you think may have inhaled poisonous fumes is conscious, you should try to encourage them to make their way out of the contaminated area if at all possible. Once they are out into fresh air, check to see if they are OK and call for an ambulance if they have signs of serious poisoning (see above).

If the person is unconscious or for any reason unable to get out the affected area, call for an ambulance immediately. You should not enter any enclosed areas to remove the person yourself because toxic gases and fumes can be very dangerous if inhaled.

How to help medical staff

Medical staff will need to take a detailed history to effectively treat a person who has been poisoned. When the paramedics arrive or when you arrive at A&E, give them as much information as you can, including:

  • What substances you think the person may have swallowed.
  • When the substance was taken (how long ago).
  • Why the substance was taken – whether it was an accident or deliberate.
  • How it was taken (for example, swallowed or inhaled).
  • How much was taken (if you know).

Give details of any symptoms the person has had, such as whether they have been sick. If they have been sick, collect a sample of their vomit as it may help medical staff to identify the poison.

Medical staff may also want to know:

  • The person's age and estimated weight.
  • Whether they have any existing medical conditions.
  • Whether they are taking any medication (if you know).

If possible, give medical staff the container that the substance came in to give them a clear idea of what it is. If you do not know what caused the poisoning, blood tests may be needed to identify the cause.

Hospital treatment

Some people who have swallowed a poisonous substance or overdosed on medication will be admitted to hospital for examination and treatment.

Possible treatments that can be used to treat poisoning include:

  • Activated charcoal – healthcare professionals sometimes use a substance called activated charcoal to treat someone who has been poisoned. The charcoal binds to the poison and stops it from being further absorbed into the blood.
  • Antidotes – these are substances that either prevent the poison from working or reverse the effects of the poison.
  • Sedatives – these may be given if the person is agitated.
  • A ventilator (breathing machine) – this may be used if the person stops breathing.
  • Anti-epileptic medicine – this may be used if the person has seizures.

Tests and investigations

Investigations may include blood tests and an electrocardiogram.

A blood test can be used to check the levels of chemicals and glucose in a person’s blood. They may be used to perform a toxicology screen (tests to determine how many drugs or medication a person has taken) and a liver function test (which indicates how damaged the liver is).

An electrocardiogram (ECG) is an electrical recording of the heart to check that it is functioning properly.

Prevention

Often, the most common form of poisoning is from medication. The following advice should help prevent accidental poisoning by medication:

  • Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medication carefully and take your dosage exactly as recommended.
  • If you are unsure about any of the instructions or have further questions, ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice.
  • Some medications should not be taken with alcohol or certain types of food. Check if this is the case for your medication.
  • Some medications can react unpredictably if taken with other medications, including herbal remedies. Always check before combining different medications.
  • Never take a medication that has been prescribed for somebody else.
  • Keep all medication out of reach of children.

Keeping children safe

Children under five have a particularly high risk of poisoning. The following advice should help reduce the risk for your children:

  • Make sure all medicines, cleaning products, chemicals and potentially harmful cosmetics, such as nail varnish, are locked away out of the sight and out of reach of children.
  • Do not store medicines, cleaning products or chemicals near food.
  • Keep all chemicals in their original containers and never put medicines or chemicals, such as weedkiller, in soft-drinks bottles.
  • When encouraging children to take medicine (when they are sick), do not refer to tablets as sweets.
  • Do not leave old medicines lying around. Take them to your local pharmacist to dispose of safely.
  • Keep cigarettes and tobacco out of reach of children and do not smoke in front of children.
  • Small batteries, such as those used for television remote controls, can be easily swallowed, so keep them out of the reach of children.
  • Whenever possible, buy medicines that come in child-resistant containers.
  • Rinse out medicine or cosmetic containers and dispose of them in a place where children cannot reach them.
  • Do not take or give medicines in the dark to avoid taking an incorrect dosage.

If you have young children, be extra careful when you have guests to stay or when you go to visit other people. If your friends and relatives do not have children, they may not think to keep certain items out of the reach of children and their home is unlikely to be childproof.

Keep an eye on your children at all times and politely ask guests to keep items such as alcohol and cigarettes out of their reach.

Read more about preventing accidents to children in the home.

Content supplied by NHS Choices