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.
The symptoms of poisoning will depend on the type of poison and the amount taken in, but general things to look out for include:
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.
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.
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:
Read more about the causes of 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.
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 of poisoning can include:
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 is a widely used over-the-counter painkiller.
Specific signs of paracetamol poisoning include:
Specific signs of aspirin poisoning include:
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:
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:
Beta-blockers are used to treat a number of conditions that affect the heart or blood such as high blood pressure, angina](https://www.your.md/condition/angina) and [heart failure.
Specific signs of poisoning with beta-blockers include:
Calcium-channel blockers are used in the treatment of high blood pressure and angina.
Specific signs of calcium-channel blocker poisoning include:
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:
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:
If you take too much of a stimulant-like drug such as cocaine, amphetamine, crack or ecstasy, overdose signs can include:
If you smoke (or eat) too much cannabis then you may experience the following symptoms:
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:
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.
The second most common cause of poisoning is household products, which account for up to one in four cases.
These can include:
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.
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 can sometimes cause poisoning if:
Read more about food poisoning.
Drinking too much alcohol in a short space of time can also lead to poisoning.
Read more about alcohol poisoning.
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:
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:
If a person does not appear to be seriously ill, call your doctor for advice.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
Often, the most common form of poisoning is from medication. The following advice should help prevent accidental poisoning by medication:
Children under five have a particularly high risk of poisoning. The following advice should help reduce the risk for your children:
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.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.