Many conditions mimic the signs and symptoms of poisoning, including seizures, alcohol intoxication, strokes and insulin reactions. So look for the signs and symptoms listed below and if you suspect poisoning, call your regional poison control center or, in the United States, the National Capital Poison Center at 800-222-1222 before giving anything to the affected person.
Signs and symptoms of poisoning
Common signs and symptoms to look for include:
- Burns or redness around the mouth and lips, from drinking certain poisons
- Breath that smells like chemicals, such as gasoline or paint thinner
- Burns, stains and odors on the person, on clothing, or on furniture, floor, rugs or other objects in the surrounding area
- Empty medication bottles or scattered pills
- Vomiting, difficulty breathing, sleepiness, confusion or other unexpected signs
When to call for help
Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately if the person is:
- Drowsy or unconscious
- Having difficulty breathing or has stopped breathing
- Uncontrollably restless or agitated
- Having seizures
If the person seems stable and has no symptoms, but you suspect poisoning, call your regional poison control center or, in the United States, the National Capital Poison Center at 800-222-1222. Provide information about the person's symptoms, age and weight, and any information you have about the poison, such as amount and how long since the person was exposed to it. It helps to have the pill bottle or poison container on hand when you call.
What to do while waiting for help
Some things you can do for the person until help arrives:
- If the person has been exposed to poisonous fumes, such as carbon monoxide, get him or her into fresh air immediately.
- If the person swallowed the poison, remove anything remaining in the mouth.
- If the suspected poison is a household cleaner or other chemical, read the label and follow instructions for accidental poisoning. If the product is toxic, the label will likely advise you to call the poison center at 800-222-1222. Also call this 800 number if you can't identify the poison, if it's medication or if there are no instructions.
- Follow treatment directions that are given by the poison control center.
- If the poison spilled on the person's clothing, skin or eyes, remove the clothing. Flush the skin or eyes with cool or lukewarm water, such as by using a shower for 20 minutes or until help arrives.
- Make sure the person is breathing. If not, start CPR and rescue breathing.
- Take the poison container (or any pill bottles) with you to the hospital.
What NOT to do
Don't give ipecac syrup or do anything to induce vomiting. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises discarding ipecac in the home, saying there's no good evidence of effectiveness and that it can do more harm than good.
- What to do in a medical emergency: Poisoning. American College of Emergency Physicians. http://www.emergencycareforyou.org/EmergencyManual/WhatToDoInMedicalEmergency/Default.aspx?id=262&terms=poisoning. Accessed March 1, 2012.
- What can you do? U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. http://poisonhelp.hrsa.gov/what-can-you-do/index.html. Accessed March 1, 2012.
- Unintentional poisoning - Keep yourself and others safe. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/Features/poisonprevention/. Accessed March 1, 2012.
- Symptoms and treatment of specific poisons. The Merck Manuals: The Merck Manual for Healthcare Professionals. http://www.merck.com/media/mmpe/pdf/Table_326-8.pdf. Accessed March 1, 2012.
- What is ipecac syrup? National Capital Poison Center. http://www.poison.org/prepared/ipecac.asp. Accessed March 1, 2012.