Keeping the Holidays Safe From Hidden Poisons

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Dec. 24, 1999 (Atlanta) -- Its color may scream "danger," but the poinsettia plant is the least of a parent's worries this holiday season when it comes to household items that could be poisonous.

"They are not the deadly plants many people assume they are," says Rose Ann Soloway, associate director of the American Association of Poison Control Centers in Washington, D.C. But she says that the sap from the poinsettia is irritating and may cause vomiting if swallowed.

The holly plant, on the other hand, can be much more dangerous. "The entire plant is toxic," Soloway says. "Although because they have sharp points, children don't chew on the leaves." The berries are another matter. If ingested, they could cause severe stomach problems.

Mistletoe may be romantic, but poison control experts assume it's toxic based on a single case report of a woman who suffered liver injury after drinking mistletoe tea. While no other human exposure data exists, Soloway's advises parents not to take any chances. "We don't recommend live mistletoe," she says. "Especially not live mistletoe berries."


Christmas trees are at least one plant that parents generally don't have to worry about. "There should be no problem associated with nibbling on evergreen trees," Soloway says. "In the first place, it's hard to do," because the needles can be sharp.

While plants may be an obvious source of holiday poisonings, there is one potentially deadly substance sometimes overlooked: alcohol. While inebriation is the cardinal sign of alcohol toxicity in adults, the consequences in children are much worse. "It is potentially a very serious poison," says Soloway. "It doesn't take much alcohol to poison a child." Not only will alcohol make children sleepy, but it also causes blood sugar levels to drop significantly.

Soloway has some advice for parents giving parties: Clean up before going to bed. One hidden source of alcohol poisoning is post-party residues left in glasses and ingested the next morning by early-waking children.

The holidays are, of course, a time for family get-togethers -- which means the potential presence of prescription medications that aren't typically around. Soloway says that anyone entering a house where there are small children should have their prescription vials locked away for the duration of their stay.


She also tells WebMD that parents should avoid getting into a subtle mindset that sometimes takes over when there are lots of people in the house: that "somebody" must be watching the children. "In lots of cases kids get into things because there wasn't one single adult charged with watching the child," she says.

Many holiday decorations present choking hazards, but most are made out of nontoxic materials, such as plastic. The water-containing snow globes which, when agitated, create a blizzard of plastic particles should cause no problem if the water and tiny plastic "snowflakes" are ingested, but there is a possibility that the water could be contaminated with bacteria.

Potentially much more toxic are aromatic oils used to give the house a Christmas scent. Soloway says that while it's hard to make a generalization about these products, one thing is certain: Children can develop a deadly form of pneumonia if the oils get into the lungs. That could happen if a child coughs or chokes while swallowing one. In addition, highly concentrated "essential oils" can cause seizures if ingested -- even in small amounts.


With many parents hitting the road for the holidays, Soloway advises packing two items along with the gifts and winter clothes: The number of a poison control center and a bottle of the vomiting agent syrup of ipecac. But under no circumstances should parents use the latter, until speaking with a representative from the former.

To find out the number of poison control center near your holiday destination, visit the American Association of Poison Control Centers homepage at

Vital Information:

  • Many holiday decorations can be toxic if ingested by children, including holly berries and aromatic oils.
  • Parents should also watch out for alcohol at parties, because only a small amount is necessary to cause alcohol poisoning in children.
  • Among the large crowds at holiday celebrations, a single adult should be charged with watching the children.
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