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Poisoning in Children

The danger of poisons

People of any age can become ill if they come into contact with certain medicines, household pesticides, chemicals, cosmetics, or plants. But children in particular face a greater risk for unintentional poisoning death and exposure than adults. This is not only because they are smaller, but also because they have faster metabolic rates. They are less able physically to handle toxic chemicals.

What causes poisonings?

Young children are poisoned most often by things in the home. These include:

  • Medicines. Blood pressure medicines, diabetes pills, depression medicines, iron pills, and pain medicines are among the most common medicines that can cause severe reactions and death in small children.

  • Cleaning products

  • Plants

  • Cosmetics

  • Pesticides

  • Paints and solvents

Carbon monoxide poisoning and lead poisoning also pose a threat to both children and adults. Although serious reactions can happen in all cases of poisoning, most people are not permanently harmed if they are treated right away.

How do most poisonings happen?

More than 9 in 10 of all poison exposures happen in the home. Most poisonings happen when parents are not paying close attention or watching children as closely as usual. Calls to poison control centers peak between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. In fact, because the hectic routine of getting dinner on the table causes so many lapses in parental attention, late afternoon has come to be known as "the arsenic hour" by poison center personnel.

What to do if a poisoning happens

Swallowed poisons

If you find your child with an open or empty container of a toxic substance, your child may have been poisoned. Stay calm, act quickly, and follow these guidelines:

  • Get the poison away from the child.

  • If the substance is still in the child's mouth, make them spit it out or remove it with your fingers (keep this along with any other evidence of what the child has swallowed).

  • Do not make the child vomit.

  • Call Poison Help at 800-222-1222 right away to get connected to a local poison center.  Do not follow instructions on packaging regarding poisoning because these are often outdated.

Call 911 right away, if your child has any of these symptoms:

  • Sore throat

  • Trouble breathing

  • Dilated (larger than normal) or constricted (smaller than normal) sized pupils

  • Drowsiness, irritability, or jumpiness

  • Nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain without fever

  • Lip or mouth burns or blisters

  • Unusual drooling

  • Strange odors on your child's breath

  • Unusual stains on your child's clothing

  • Seizures or unconsciousness

Take or send the poison container with your child This is to let the healthcare provider know what your child swallowed. Both the poison control center and your child's healthcare provider will need this information.

  • Your name and phone number

  • Your child's name, age, and weight

  • Any health conditions your child may have

  • Any medicines your child may be taking

  • The name of the substance your child swallowed. Read it from the container and spell it.

  • The time your child swallowed the poison (or when you found your child), and the amount you think was swallowed.

  • Any symptoms your child may be having

  • If the substance was a prescription medicine, give all the information on the label, including the name of the medicine.

    • If the name of the medicine is not on the label, give the name and phone number of the pharmacy, and the date of the prescription.

    • What the pill looked like (if you can tell) and if it had any printed numbers or letters on it.

  • If your child swallowed another substance, such as a part of a plant, describe it as much as you can to help identify it.

Poisons on the skin

If your child spills a chemical on their body, remove their clothes and rinse the skin with lukewarm—not hot—water. If the area shows signs of being burned, continue rinsing for at least 15 minutes, no matter how much your child may protest. Then call the poison control center (800-222-1222) for further advice. Do not put ointments, butter, or grease on the area. NOTE: Chemicals do not cause the same degree of effects, some are non-irritants while others can cause severe corrosive injury.

Call 911 right away for a chemical burn that:

  • Is deep

  • Covers an area larger than 3 inches (about 8 centimeters) in diameter

  • Covers the hands, feet, face, groin, buttocks or a major joint

Give the chemical container or the name of the chemical to emergency care providers or take it with you to the emergency department.

Poison in the eye

Flush the eye by holding the eyelid open and pouring a steady stream of lukewarm—not hot—water into the inner corner of the eye near the nose. If this is a child, you may need help from another adult to hold the child while you rinse the eye. Or wrap your child tightly in a towel and hold your child under one arm. Continue flushing the eye for 15 minutes, and call the poison control center (800-222-1222) for further instructions. Do not use an eyecup, eyedrops, or ointment unless the poison center tells you to do so.

Poisonous fumes or gases

In the home, poisonous fumes can be emitted from the following sources:

  • A car running in a closed garage

  • Leaky gas vents

  • Wood, coal, or kerosene stoves that are not working properly

  • Mixing bleach and ammonia together while cleaning, which makes chloramine gas

  • Strong fumes from other cleaners and solvents

If your child breathes in fumes or gases, get them into fresh air right away.

  • If your child is breathing without a problem, call the poison center for further instructions.

  • If your child is having difficulty breathing, call 911 or your local emergency service (EMS).

  • If your child has stopped breathing, start CPR and do not stop until your child breathes on their own or someone else can take over. If you can, have someone call 911 right away. If you are alone, perform CPR for 2 minutes and then call 911.

Be prepared for a poisoning emergency by posting the poison center telephone number by every telephone in your home.

Child-resistant lids on some common household products

The Consumer Product Safety Commission requires safety caps on a variety of commonly used household products. The products, all oily hydrocarbon products, are thin and slippery and can easily suffocate children if the substances are drawn into their lungs when drinking them. The products can cause chemical pneumonia by coating the inside of the lungs. Products that are required to have a safety lid include:

  • Baby oils

  • Sunscreens

  • Nail enamel dryers

  • Hair oils

  • Bath, body, and massage oils

  • Makeup removers

  • Some automotive chemicals (gasoline additives, fuel injection cleaners, and carburetor cleaners)

  • Cleaning solvents (wood oil cleaners, metal cleaners, spot removers, and adhesive removers)

  • Some water repellents containing mineral spirits used for decks, shoes, and sports equipment

  • General-use household oil

  • Gun-cleaning solvents containing kerosene

  • Liquid nicotine containers

Oil products that are thicker and more "syrupy" are not a problem, since they are not easily inhaled into the lungs.

Online Medical Reviewer: Eric Perez MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Maryann Foley RN BSN
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2021
© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.