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Poisoning - Topic Overview

A poison is a substance that has toxic effects and may injure you or make you sick if you are exposed to it. Poisons can be found everywhere, from simple household cleaners to cosmetics to houseplants to industrial chemicals. Even medicines that are taken in the wrong dose, at the wrong time, or by the wrong person can cause a toxic effect. Poisonous substances can hurt you if they are swallowed, inhaled, spilled on your skin, or splashed in your eyes. In most cases, any product that gives off fumes or is an aerosol that can be inhaled should be considered a possible poison. More than 90% of poisonings occur in the home.

Young children have the highest risk of poisoning because of their natural curiosity. More than half of poisonings in children occur in those who are younger than age 6. Some children will swallow just about anything, including unappetizing substances that are poisonous. When in doubt, assume the worst. Always believe a child or a witness, such as another child or a brother or sister, who reports that poison has been swallowed. Many poisonings occur when an adult who is using a poisonous product around children becomes distracted by the doorbell, a telephone, or some other interruption.

Young children are also at high risk for accidental poisoning from nonprescription and prescription medicines. Even though medicine bottles are packaged to prevent a child from opening them, be sure to keep all medicines away from where children can reach them.

Teenagers also have an increased risk of poisonings, both accidental and intentional, because of their risk-taking behavior. Some teens experiment with poisonous substances such as by sniffing toxic glues or inhaling aerosol substances to get "high." About half of all poisonings in teens are classified as suicide attempts, which always requires medical evaluation.

Adults—especially older adults—are at risk for accidental and intentional poisonings from:

  • Alcohol and illegal drugs. For more information, see the topic Alcohol and Drug Problems.
  • Gas leaks, such as exhaust leaks from heaters and stoves and automobile exhaust. For more information, see the topic Carbon Monoxide Poisoning.
  • Medicines, such as acetaminophen, antibiotics, cough and cold remedies, vitamins, pain relievers, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers.
  • Household cleaning supplies and other substances, such as cosmetics, antifreeze, windshield cleaner, gardening products, and paint thinners.
  • Herbal products.

If a poisoning was intentional, call your local suicide hotline or the national suicide hotline 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255 for help.

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