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What Are Common Causes of Poisoning in Children?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 09, 2022

Children are endlessly curious and want to explore, dismantle, and taste everything they find. Common causes of poisoning in children are in daily use in most households. Recognizing the signs of child poisoning, knowing how to contact the poison control center, and implementing child poisoning prevention in your home can prevent tragedies.

Most often, poisoning in children occurs at age 1 to 2 years. At this age, children are adventurous and can walk, climb, and reach things they couldn't before. Out of reach and out of sight are both necessary for child poisoning prevention.

Medicines

Medicines are the most common cause of poisoning in children. Several medicines you or a family member are taking can be dangerous to children. Opioids and barbiturates are well-known dangers, but medicines for high blood pressure, mental health, and diabetes are also hazardous. A single tablet can be fatal for a small child. 

Many medicines prescribed to your child could be harmful at higher doses. Your pediatrician will weigh your child and prescribe a safe and effective dose. Always check the label before giving a dose to ensure you're getting it right. Never use a household spoon for liquid medicines. Use the marked dropper, measuring cup, or other dosing device supplied with the medicine.

Store your child's medicines securely. Liquid medicines are often sweet, and a child getting hold of the bottle might consume a large amount. If more than one adult is giving medicines to your child, good communication is essential to avoid double dosing. 

Medicine Safety

These guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics will keep children safe:

  • Keep all medicines in their original containers, which usually have child-safety caps. Nothing is childproof. 
  • Store medicines high up, where children cannot reach or see. For dangerous medicines, consider locks on the cabinet.
  • Children who crawl eat anything they find on the floor. If you drop a pill, don't stop looking until you find it.
  • Get rid of unused medicines, using safe disposal methods.

Pesticides

After medicines, these are the most common cause of child poisoning in some parts of the world. In the U.S., pesticide poisoning is believed to be rare, perhaps because only insecticides are considered. Fumigants, rodenticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other products are all pesticides. You might be using some to control weeds in your garden or spraying in your home. 

Most pesticides contain compounds from the chemical classes carbamates, organophosphates, pyrethrins, and pyrethroids, or organochlorine compounds. The symptoms of each are different, but these are all very dangerous. If you suspect your child has consumed a pesticide, you should rush them to an emergency room. 

Cleaning Agents

Most cleaning agents contain caustic agents. These strong bases can cause oesophageal burns and other serious injuries even in small amounts. Sanitizers contain benzalkonium, sodium hypochlorite, or alcohol. Keep them in a locked cabinet and use them when children aren't around.

Alcohol

Children may find alcoholic drinks and consume them. Sanitizers, perfumes, over-the-counter cold medicines, and mouthwash also contain alcohol. At young ages, alcohol ingestion causes low blood glucose levels, fits, and coma.

Drugs of Abuse

Children consuming illegal drugs may have seizures, respiratory depression, and unconsciousness. Obviously, keep them locked up or out of the house completely.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas. Poisoning happens when hydrocarbons are burned in a closed space without proper ventilation. Common devices that cause carbon monoxide poisoning are generators, heating systems, charcoal grills, engine-driven tools, camp stoves and lanterns, gas ovens and ranges, and gas water heaters. Carbon monoxide poisoning makes children (and adults) dizzy, nauseous, and sleepy, after which they slip into a coma. Death may occur if not treated in time. 

All devices producing carbon monoxide should be installed in the open, or in a well-ventilated place. Install carbon dioxide detectors in the home, and test them regularly. Never leave a car running in a garage attached to the house.

Plants

Garden plants add beauty to your home and garden, but some are dangerous. They can make your child sick if eaten. Among them are daffodils, dumb cane, foxglove, hydrangea, lilies, oleanders, rhododendrons, and wisteria. Oleanders, for example, contain glycosides that damage the heart and can be fatal if consumed.

You should know the name of each plant in your garden. Consider removing those known to be dangerous.

Hydrocarbons

Gasoline (petrol), kerosene, lamp oil, lighter fluid, motor oil, and paint thinners and removers. Exposure by ingestion or inhaling can affect the brain and respiratory system.

Liquid Nicotine

Used in e-cigarettes, it is a very concentrated and dangerous substance. Even a small amount consumed or spilled on the skin of a young child can cause death.

Child Poisoning Treatment

If your child has consumed or been exposed to poison, call for emergency medical help. Then follow these steps:

  • Swallowed poison. Take the substance from the child, and get them to spit out any in their mouth. Don't force them to vomit or give syrup ipecac without medical advice.
  • Touched poison. Take your child's clothes off and bathe them with warm water and soap for 15 minutes.
  • Inhaled poison. Take your child out in the open air, away from the poisonous place. You may need to give cardiopulmonary resuscitation till help arrives.

Poison Control Center

Poison control centers provide expert information about poisons. You can call them to get information about the dangers of any substance or product. 

In the U.S., the poison control center number is 1-800-222-1222. This is a nationwide number. It will connect you to the poison control center in your region, where an expert will guide you.

When calling the poison control center number, you should have some information ready.

  • The age and weight of the child who has consumed poison.
  • The product and ingredients (keep the box or bottle with you when calling).
  • Any symptoms the poisoned child is experiencing.
  • The amount of the substance consumed.
  • Any medical history that may be useful to the poison expert.

If you know your child has consumed a known poisonous substance, or an unknown substance and appears sick, go to an emergency room or call for help immediately.

Child Poisoning Prevention

These measures will keep your children safe from poison:

  • Keep chemical products in their original bottles or containers, which often have childproof lids or caps.
  • Never use food containers to store cleaning or cosmetic products.
  • Never leave children alone with household products or drugs. Use bathroom cleaners, drain cleaners, and other hazardous chemicals when children are away.
  • Return household products and drugs to their storage place after use. Never leave them out where children can reach them.

Most child poisoning (95%) takes place at home. Better vigilance in the home and safer storage of hazardous substances could prevent nearly all types of poisoning in children.

Show Sources

SOURCES:
American Academy of Pediatrics: "Poison Prevention: One Pill Can Kill," "Poison Prevention & Treatment Tips for Parents."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Poisoning."
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: "Calling the Poison Control Center." 
Hassenfeld Children's Hospital NYU Langone: "Types of Poisoning in Children."
Pediatrics: "Pesticide Exposure in Children."
Pediatrics and Neonatology: "Clinical spectrum of acute poisoning in children admitted to the pediatric emergency department."

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