What Are Common Causes of Poisoning in Children?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on December 07, 2023
7 min read

Children are endlessly curious and want to explore, touch, 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 knowing about child poisoning prevention in your home can prevent tragedies. Out of reach and out of sight are both necessary to prevent child poisoning.

Learn the signs of potential poisoning in children, which can include:

  • A hard time breathing
  • A hard time speaking
  • Dizziness
  • Unconsciousness
  • Foaming or burning of the mouth
  • Cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting


Poisoning in children usually happens at home, when they take in a poisonous substance, breathe it in, or their skin is exposed to it. The poisoning is usually accidental and involves children under the age of 5. 

Some common causes of poisoning in children include medicine, cleaning products, and alcohol. These substances can be toxic in children as their bodies are not as developed as those of adults and they have less defense against the effects of the poison. 

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.
  • Know basic first aid and have the poison control center number available.
  • If medication is dropped or spilled, sweep and/or vacuum the area to be sure no medicine was left out.

After medicines, pesticides 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 spray 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. 

Most cleaning agents contain caustic agents, which are chemicals that can burn people's eyes, skin, and linings of the nose, throat, mouth, and lungs. Poisoning from these strong bases can also hurt your child's digestive tract and cause other serious injuries, even in small amounts. Many sanitizers contain benzalkonium or sodium hypochlorite, compounds that can be very toxic if inhaled. Keep them in a locked cabinet, and use them when children aren't around.

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, seizures, and coma.

Children consuming illegal drugs may have seizures, respiratory depression, changes in being responsive or alert, and unconsciousness. Keep them locked up or out of the house completely.

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, nauseated, and sleepy, after which they slip into a coma. Death may happen if carbon monoxide poisoning isn't 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.

Garden plants add beauty to your home and garden, but some are dangerous because they have toxins that can affect many parts of the body, including the stomach, heart, liver, and skin. 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.

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

Used in e-cigarettes, liquid nicotine is a very concentrated and dangerous substance. Even a small amount consumed or spilled on the skin of a young child can cause death. Other harmful nicotine products include cigars, chewing tobacco, nicotine gum, cigarettes, and patches. They can be poisonous if taken in by your child.

If a child has swallowed something extremely toxic and fast-acting, you may need to do first aid right away and 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 without medical advice.
  • Touched poison. If poison touches the skin, immediately wash the area with soap and warm water for 10-30 minutes. If there is blistering, take the victim to the emergency room right away.
  • Inhaled poison. Take your child out in the open air, away from the poisonous place. You may need to give cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) until help arrives.

Other treatments for poison exposure include:

  • If a toxic substance gets in the eyes, flush eyes continuously with warm water for 10 minutes.
  • If the victim has stopped breathing or doesn't have a heartbeat, perform CPR and call 911 right away.
  • If the victim is unconscious or breathing is difficult or labored, call 911.

Note: The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends against using syrup of ipecac to cause vomiting when children swallow a poisonous substance.

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 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 (have the box or bottle with you when you call.)
  • Any symptoms the poisoned child has
  • 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 right away.

These measures will keep your children safe from poison:

  • Keep chemical products in their original bottles or containers, which often have child safety 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.

More than 90% of child poisoning takes place at home. Better vigilance in the home and safer storage of hazardous substances could prevent nearly all types of poisoning in children.

Poison control centers across the country get more than 2 million calls a year about potential exposure to poisons. Almost all of these exposures happen in the home, and 80% of all poisonings are in children between the ages of 1 and 4. Other guidelines to prevent poisoning in the home include:

  • Install safety locks/childproof latches on all cabinets to restrict access to children.
  • Safely throw away – into a sealed outdoor trash receptacle – all household products and medications that are old or aren't used regularly.
  • Never mix products; dangerous fumes could result.
  • Vitamins and supplements also should be out of reach of children. Be especially alert at Grandma's house. Older people with hand arthritis may get medication bottles that don't have child safety lids. They're also more likely to leave medicine out in the open.
  • Keep indoor plants out of reach; some may be poisonous.
  • Stay away from areas that have been sprayed recently with pesticides or fertilizer.