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What to do if you or your child has been poisoned

Monday 28 August 2017

A toddler sits behind a shelf of cleaning products, she looks like she will pick one up. >
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Poisons are often contained in regular, day-to-day objects.

In children’s movies, poisons are often shown as magically tainted foods, or brightly coloured liquids in jugs labelled “poison”. But poisons in real life aren’t always so easy to spot: they are often contained in regular, day-to-day objects and take many different forms.

So how do you identify potential poisons around your home? What steps should you take to make your home safe for you and your family? And what should you do if you, or someone else, have been poisoned?

Identifying poisons

A poison is a substance that can make a person unwell, or even kill them, when touched, eaten or inhaled. Poisons can be from plants, animals, insects, foods, household products, workplace products or medicines. You can be poisoned by swallowing a poison, getting a poison on your skin or in your eyes, breathing a poison in, or being bitten or stung by a poisonous animal, insect or plant.

According to the Queensland Poisons Information Centre, common household poisons include:

  • medicines – especially when taken by a person they were not prescribed for, or when too much is taken either by accident or deliberately
  • all types of batteries, including button batteries
  • cleaning products and detergents
  • insect repellents, pest baits and pellets
  • health and beauty products
  • gardening, building, mechanics and outdoor cleaning chemicals
  • animals including snakes, spiders, insects, cane toads
  • flowers, berries, mushrooms and sap of some plants.

You can read a full list of common poisons on the Queensland Poison Information Centre website, and use an interactive display to learn more about where poisons can often be found around the home.

Symptoms of poisoning

There are lots of different symptoms associated with poisoning, because there are so many different types of poison. These can include trouble breathing, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, rashes, and sleepiness or drowsiness, but will vary depending on the type of poison and how much poison the person has come into contact with.

It’s important to always treat poisoning seriously, and administer first aid if you suspect you or someone else has been poisoned straight away, regardless of whether there are any symptoms.

All poisons have the potential to cause anaphylaxis, an extreme allergic reaction, which can cause a person’s airways to swell up and prevent them from breathing. Anaphylaxis can be deadly – if you suspect a person is having an anaphylactic reaction call Tripe Zero (000) immediately.  

Poison first aid

If you think you or a person you are caring for has been poisoned, follow the below steps. Don’t wait for symptoms to show before you take action.

If the person has collapsed, is not breathing or you think they are experiencing anaphylaxis, call Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance immediately.  

If the person is not currently showing the above serious symptoms, follow the appropriate first aid steps outlined by the Queensland Poisons Information Centre here, for the specific type of poisoning. Then call the Queensland Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 (available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) for up-to-date advice on what to do next.

The Poisons Information Centre can give you further advice about first aid, refer you to an appropriate medical professional if necessary, let you know if you should call an ambulance or let you know what symptoms to watch out for over the coming hours if immediate medical attention is not necessary. The majority of accidental poisonings can be managed at home with advice and guidance from a specialist in poisons information.

A close up of an eastern brown snake coiled on the ground, flicking its tongue out.

Common myths

There are some common myths about poisoning treatment that you should steer clear of.

Vomiting

You should not induce vomiting if you think someone has swallowed a poison, as it is possible that they could inhale and choke on the vomit. If the poisonous substance could cause burns, vomiting may result in the risk of further burns as it comes back up.

Give milk rather than water

When a poison has been swallowed, giving milk is no more effective than giving water. The important thing is diluting the product that has been swallowed, so don’t panic about trying to find milk when tap water will do.

Neutralising chemicals

Poisoning is not the time to become an amateur scientist. Don’t try to ‘neutralise’ a chemical burn by putting another chemical on top (for example using an acid such as vinegar on an alkaline product like oven cleaner). This can actually make the damage from the burn worse as the combination of chemicals might produce further heat.

Tourniquets

Movies might have taught you to tourniquet (or tightly tie a band) above a snake bite site, but this is actually a potentially dangerous practice. It is not recommended to apply a tourniquet for any bite or sting. However, bites and stings from some poisonous creatures will require a pressure immobilisation bandage.

Consult the internet

There is a lot of information available online, but not all of it is credible. Rather than consulting Dr. Google, call the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 for up-to-date information and advice.

How to prevent poisoning

When it comes to poisons, prevention is key.

Put any potentially poisonous products, including medicines, cleaning products and beauty products, in high cupboards which are lockable or have child safety measures, so that children can’t access them. Try to unpack shopping straight away, putting potential poisons away immediately, and be aware of where poisonous products are placed when you are moving house.

Don’t take medicine that hasn’t been prescribed for you, and pay close attention when taking medicines so that you don’t accidentally take a double dose. This includes homeopathic and herbal remedies, as well as prescription and over-the-counter medicine.

Teach children not to touch unknown animals and insects and to wear appropriate footwear when outside. Be aware of what plants grow in your garden, and teach children not to eat flowers, leaves or berries from unknown plants.  

You should always wear appropriate protective gear, like glasses or gloves, when handling chemicals and cleaning.

Last updated: 28 August 2017