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Poisoning occurs when any substance interferes with normal body functions after it is swallowed, inhaled, injected, or absorbed. The branch of medicine that deals with the detection and treatment of poisons is known as toxicology.


Poisonings are a common occurrence. About 10 million cases of poisoning occur in the United States each year. In 80% of the cases, the victim is a child under the age of five. About 50 children die each year from poisonings. Curiosity, inability to read warning labels, a desire to imitate adults, and inadequate supervision lead to childhood poisonings.
The elderly are the second most likely group to be poisoned. Mental confusion, poor eyesight, and the use of multiple drugs are the leading reasons why this group has a high rate of accidental poisoning. A substantial number of poisonings also occur as suicide attempts or drug overdoses.
Poisons are common in the home and workplace, yet there are basically two major types. One group consists of products that were never meant to be ingested or inhaled, such as shampoo, paint thinner, pesticides, houseplant leaves, and carbon monoxide. The other group contains products that can be ingested in small quantities, but which are harmful if taken in large amounts, such as pharmaceuticals, medicinal herbs, or alcohol. Other types of poisons include the bacterial toxins that cause food poisoning, such as Escherichia coli; heavy metals, such as the lead found in the paint on older houses; and the venom found in the bites and stings of some animals and insects. The staff at a poison control center and emergency room doctors have the most experience diagnosing and treating poisoning cases.

Causes and symptoms

The effects of poisons are as varied as the poisons themselves; however, the exact mechanisms of only a few are understood. Some poisons interfere with the metabolism. Others destroy the liver or kidneys, such as heavy metals and some pain relief medications, including acetaminophen (Tylenol) and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (Advil, Ibuprofen). A poison may severely depress the central nervous system, leading to coma and eventual respiratory and circulatory failure. Potential poisons in this category include anesthetics (e.g. ether and chloroform), opiates (e.g., morphine and codeine), and barbiturates. Some poisons directly affect the respiratory and circulatory system. Carbon monoxide causes death by binding with hemoglobin that would normally transport oxygen throughout the body. Certain corrosive vapors trigger the body to flood the lungs with fluids, effectively drowning the person. Cyanide interferes with respiration at the cellular level. Another group of poisons interferes with the electrochemical impulses that travel between neurons in the nervous system. Yet another group, including cocaine, ergot, strychnine, and some snake venoms, causes potentially fatal seizures.
Severity of symptoms can range from headache and nausea to convulsions and death. The type of poison, the amount and time of exposure, and the age, size, and health of the victim are all factors which determine the severity of symptoms and the chances for recovery.
Common Household, Industrial, And Agricultural Products Containing Toxic Sustances
Alcohol (rubbing) FuelAntifreeze Floor/furniture polish
Arsenic Gasoline Art and craft supplies
Glues/adhesives Automotive fluids Hemlock
Batteries, automotive Kerosene Batteries, household
Mercury Building products Metal primers
Cleaning products Metalworking materials Cosmetics/personal care items
Mothballs Cyanide Oven cleaners
Daffodil bulbs Paint strppers/thinners Dieffenbachia
Paints, oil-based or alkyds Disinfectants/air fresheners Paints, water-based or latex
Drain openers Pesticides Flea collars/insect repellent
English nightshade Stains/finishes Ethanol
Strychnine Foxglove Wood preservatives

Plant poisoning

There are more than 700 species of poisonous plants in the United States. Plants are second only to medicines in causing serious poisoning in children under age five. There is no way to tell by looking at a plant if it is poisonous. Some plants, such as the yew shrub, are almost entirely toxic: needles, bark, seeds, and berries. In other plants, only certain parts are poisonous. The bulb of the hyacinth and daffodil are toxic, but the flowers are not; while the flowers of the jasmine plant are the poisonous part. Moreover, some plants are confusing because portions of them are eaten as food while other parts are poisonous. For example, the fleshy stem (tuber) of the potato plant is nutritious; however, its roots, sprouts, and vines are poisonous. The leaves of tomatoes are poisonous, while the fruit is not. Rhubarb stalks are good to eat, but the leaves are poisonous. Apricots, cherries, peaches, and apples all produce healthful fruit, but their seeds contain a form of cyanide that can kill a child if chewed in sufficient quantities. One hundred milligrams (mg) of moist, crushed apricot seeds can produce 217 mg of cyanide.
Common houseplants that contain some poisonous parts include:
  • Aloe
  • Amaryllis
  • Cyclamen
  • Dumb cane (also called Dieffenbachia)
  • Philodendron
Common outdoor plants that contain some poisonous part include:
  • Bird of paradise flower
  • Buttercup
  • Castor bean
  • Chinaberry tree
  • Daffodil
  • English ivy
  • Eucalyptus
  • Foxglove
  • Holly
  • Horse chestnut
  • Iris
  • Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Jimsonweed (also called thornapple)
  • Larkspur
  • Lily-of-the-valley
  • Morning glory
  • Nightshade (several varieties)
  • Oleander
  • Potato
  • Rhododendron
  • Rhubarb
  • Sweet pea
  • Tomato
  • Wisteria
  • Yew
Symptoms of plant poisoning range from irritation of the skin or mucous membranes of the mouth and throat to nausea, vomiting, convulsions, irregular heartbeat, and even death. It is often difficult to tell if a person has eaten a poisonous plant because there are no tell-tale empty containers and no unusual lesions or odors around the mouth.
Many cases of plant poisoning involve plants that contain hallucinogens, such as peyote cactus buttons, certain types of mushrooms, and marijuana. A recent case of plant poisoning in France concerned Datura, or moonflower, a plant that has become popular with young people trying to imitate Native American puberty rites.
Other cases of plant poisoning result from the use of herbal dietary supplements that have been contaminated by toxic substances. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the authority to monitor herbal products on the market and issue warnings about accidental poisoning or other adverse affects associated with these products. For example, in 2002 a manufacturer of nettle capsules found to contain lead recalled the product following a warning from the FDA. Other dietary supplements have been found to contain small quantities of prescription medications or even toxic plants.

Household chemicals

Many products used daily in the home are poisonous if swallowed. These products often contain strong acids or strong bases (alkalis). Toxic household cleaning products include:
  • ammonia
  • bleach
  • dishwashing liquids
  • drain openers
  • floor waxes and furniture polishes
  • laundry detergents, spot cleaners, and fabric softeners
  • mildew removers
  • oven cleaners
  • toilet bowl cleaners
Personal care products found in the home can also be poisonous. These include:
  • deodorant
  • hairspray
  • hair straighteners
  • nail polish and polish remover
  • perfume
  • shampoo
Signs that a person has swallowed one of these substances include evidence of an empty container nearby, nausea or vomiting, and burns on the lips and skin around the mouth if the substance was a strong acid or alkali. The chemicals in some of these products may leave a distinctive odor on the breath.


Both over-the-counter and prescription medicines can help the body heal if taken as directed. However, when taken in large quantities, or with other drugs where there may be an adverse interaction, they can act as poisons. Drug overdoses, both accidental and intentional, are the leading cause of poisoning in adults. Medicinal herbs should be treated like pharmaceuticals and taken only in designated quantities under the supervision of a knowledgeable person. Herbs that have healing qualities when taken in small doses can be toxic in larger doses, or may interact with prescription medications in unpredictable ways.
Drug overdoses cause a range of symptoms, including excitability, sleepiness, confusion, unconsciousness, rapid heartbeat, convulsions, nausea, and changes in blood pressure. The best initial evidence of a drug overdose is the presence of an empty container near the victim.

Other causes of poisonings

People can be poisoned by fumes they inhale. Carbon monoxide is the most common form of inhaled poison. Other toxic substances that can be inhaled include:
  • farm and garden insecticides and herbicides
  • gasoline fumes
  • insect repellent
  • paint thinner fumes


Initially, poisoning is suspected if the victim shows changes in behavior and signs or symptoms previously described. Hallucinations or other psychiatric symptoms may indicate poisoning by a hallucinogenic plant. Evidence of an empty container or information from the victim are helpful in determining exactly what substance has caused the poisoning. Some acids and alkalis leave burns on the mouth. Petroleum products, such as lighter fluid or kerosene, leave a distinctive odor on the breath. The vomit may be tested to determine the exact composition of the poison. Once hospitalized, the patient may be given blood and urine tests to determine his or her metabolic condition.


Treatment for poisoning depends on the poison swallowed or inhaled. Contacting the poison control center or hospital emergency room is the first step in getting proper treatment. The poison control center's telephone number is often listed with emergency numbers on the inside cover of the telephone book, or it can be reached by dialing the operator. The poison control center will ask for specific information about the victim and the poison, then give appropriate first aid instructions. If the patient is to be taken to a hospital, a sample of vomit and the poison container should be taken along, if they are available.
Most cases of plant poisoning are treated by inducing vomiting, if the patient is fully conscious. Vomiting can be induced by taking syrup of ipecac, an over-the-counter emetic available at any pharmacy.
For acid, alkali, or petroleum product poisonings, the patient should not vomit. Acids and alkalis can burn the esophagus if they are vomited, and petroleum products can be inhaled into the lungs during vomiting, resulting in pneumonia.
Once under medical care, doctors have the option of treating the patient with a specific remedy to counteract the poison (antidote) or with activated charcoal to absorb the substance inside the patient's digestive system. In some instances, pumping the stomach may be required. This technique, which is known as gastric lavage, involves introducing 20-30 mL of tap water or 9% saline solution into the patient's digestive tract and removing the stomach contents with a siphon or syringe. The process is repeated until the washings are free of poison. Medical personnel will also provide supportive care as needed, such as intravenous fluids or mechanical ventilation.
If the doctor suspects that the poisoning was not accidental, he or she is required to notify law enforcement authorities. Most cases of malicious poisoning concern family members or acquaintances of the victim, but the number of intentional random poisonings of the general public has increased in recent years. A case reported in 2003 involved the use of nicotine to poison 1700 pounds of ground beef in a Michigan supermarket. Over a hundred persons fell ill after eating the poisoned beef.


The outcome of poisoning varies from complete recovery to death, and depends on the type and amount of the poison, the health of the victim, and the speed with which medical care is obtained.


Most accidental poisonings are preventable. The number of deaths of children from poisoning has declined from about 450 per year in the 1960s to about 50 each year in the 1990s. This decline has occurred mainly because of better packaging of toxic materials and better public education.
Actions to prevent poisonings include:
  • removing plants that are poisonous
  • keeping medicines and household chemicals locked and in a place inaccessible to children
  • keeping medications in child-resistant containers
  • never referring to medicine as "candy"
  • keeping cleaners and other poisons in their original containers
  • disposing of outdated prescription medicines
  • not purchasing over-the-counter medications with damaged protective seals or packaging
  • avoiding the use of herbal preparations not made by a reputable manufacturer

Key terms

Antidote — A medication or remedy for counteracting the effects of a poison.
Emetic — A medication or substance given to induce vomiting.
Gastric lavage — A technique for washing poison out of the stomach by instilling water or saline solution through a tube, removing the stomach contents by suction, and repeating the process until the washings are free of poison. It is also called stomach pumping.
Toxicology — The branch of medicine that deals with the effects, detection, and treatment of poisons.



Beers, Mark H., MD, and Robert Berkow, MD., editors. "Poisoning." In The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck Research Laboratories, 2004.


Arouko, H., M. D. Matray, C. Braganca, et al. "Voluntary Poisoning by Ingestion of Datura stramonium. Another Cause of Hospitalization in Youth Seeking Strong Sensations." [in French] Annales de médecine interne 154, Spec no. 1 (June 2003): S46-S50.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Nicotine Poisoning After Ingestion of Contaminated Ground Beef—Michigan, 2003." Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 52 (May 9, 2003): 413-416.
Hirshon, Jon Mark, MD, MPH. "Plant Poisoning, Herbs." eMedicine January 18, 2002. http://www.emedicine.com/EMERG/topic449.htm.
Salomone, Joseph A., III, MD. "Toxicity, Hallucinogen." eMedicine November 27, 2001. http://www.emedicine.com/emerg/topic223.htm.


American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC). 3201 New Mexico Avenue, Suite 330, Washington, DC 20016. (202) 362-7217. POISONING EMERGENCIES: (800) 222-1222. http://www.aapcc.org.
National Toxicology Program (NTP) of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). P. O. Box 12233, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709. (919) 541-3419. 〈http://www.ntpserver.niehs.nih.gov〉.
U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, MD 20857. (888) 463-6332. http://www.fda.gov.


Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center Page. 〈http://www.pharmacy.arizona.edu/centers/poisoncenter〉.
"Homeowner Chemical Safety." Centers for DiseaseControl. 〈http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/nasd/docs2/pdfs/as23900.pdf〉.
"Poisonous Plant Databases." University of Maryland. http://www.inform.umd.edu.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


development of symptoms after contact with a potentially toxic substance (see also poison). Such substances can enter the body by several routes: oral (medicines, household products, etc.); nasal (carbon monoxide, pesticides, etc.); through the eyes (household products and industrial chemicals, etc.); through the skin (caustics, pesticides, etc.); and parenteral (bites, stings, injected drugs, etc.). Children account for about half of all exposures to poisons, but most fatalities are in teenagers and adults who abuse drugs or commit suicide with drugs, chemicals, or gases.
Symptoms. Symptoms vary widely depending on the type and amount of substance involved, the route of exposure, and the age, weight, and medical condition of the victim. Some poisons are associated with characteristic clusters of symptoms called toxidromes. For example, opioid poisoning causes constricted pupils, depressed respirations, and coma. Poisoning by organophosphate insecticides causes tearing, salivation, loss of bowel and bladder control, and copious bronchial secretions. (See organophosphorus compound poisoning). However, many poisonings result in very general symptoms; for example, the headache, nausea, and lethargy of carbon monoxide poisoning often are misdiagnosed as a viral illness. For some poisonings, such as methanol and ethylene glycol, symptoms are delayed for many hours after exposure. Suspect a possible poisoning when someone has unexplained illness, seizures, cardiac arrhythmias, change in mental status, or loss of consciousness. Of course, also consider poison exposure in the face of obvious burns to the skin, evidence of medicine or foreign substance around the mouth or on the skin, or unexpectedly empty bottles or containers.
First Aid. If the victim is unconscious, having seizures, or not breathing, call 911 or the local emergency ambulance number immediately. Otherwise, the immediate goal is to prevent or decrease further contact with the poison. After immediate measures are taken, always call the poison center at 1-800-222-1222. The poison center staff of physicians, nurses, and pharmacists, all with special training in toxicology, will provide both immediate and ongoing treatment advice.

Swallowed poison: dilute by having the victim drink a small amount of milk or water.

Inhaled poison: remove victim to fresh air if it is safe for the rescuer to enter.

Poison on the skin: rinse with running water for a minimum of 15--20 minutes.

Poison in the eyes: rinse with running water for a minimum of 15--20 minutes.
Treatment for poisoning. A careful history plus consultation with the poison center will allow a determination of how dangerous the situation may be. Next steps may include: decontamination of the gastrointestinal tract or further irrigation of eyes or skin; stabilization of the airway, breathing, and circulation; and treatment of seizures, if present. Supportive care, which may be as simple as observation or may be extremely complex, is sufficient for most poisonings. Few substances have specific antidotes, but the poison center will recommend when one is indicated and can help locate unusual antidotes.
Poison Prevention.

1. Use child-resistant packaging for medicines and household products.

2. Keep potential poisons locked out of sight and reach of children.

3. Store medicines and household products in their original, labeled containers.

4. Call medicines by their proper names.

5. Take medicines where children cannot watch, as children learn by imitation.

6. Read the label before giving or taking any medicine.

7. Read the label and follow precautions when using any household products.

8. Wear personal protective equipment as indicated when working with industrial and household chemicals.

9. Put the poison center number on the phone: 1-800-222-1222.

10. Call the poison center immediately for any possible poison exposure.
risk for poisoning a nursing diagnosis accepted by the North American Nursing Diagnosis Association, defined as an accentuated risk of accidental exposure to or ingestion of drugs or dangerous products in doses sufficient to cause poisoning.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.


toxicophobia, iophobia.


1. The administering of poison.
2. The state of being poisoned. Synonym(s): intoxication (1)
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012


Vox populi Intoxication with a substance or chemical; M&M linked to a poison. See Beryllium poisoning, Cadmium poisoning, Carbon monoxide poisoning, Ciguatera poisoning, Fluoride poisoning, Food poisoning, Insecticide poisoning, Lead poisoning, Manganese poisoning, Mushroom poisoning, Toxic oil poisoning.
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. The administering of poison.
2. The state of being poisoned.
Synonym(s): intoxication (1) .
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012


1. Administering of poison.
2. State of being poisoned.
Medical Dictionary for the Dental Professions © Farlex 2012

Patient discussion about poisoning

Q. How Do You Treat Food Poisoning? I've been suffering from food poisoning for the last two days, is there a way to treat it? Is there specific food I should avoid?

A. The most important treatment for food poisoning is drinking water. The body loses many fluids and the danger is dehydration. Our body can last longer without food than it can without water, and therefore it is ok to avoid eating as much as you used to for a short period of time until your digestive system can recover. However it is very dangerous to avoid drinking, despite the possible vomiting.At any sign of dehydration (fatigue, dizziness) you should seek medical care. In case your symptoms go on loger than expected you should visit your doctor, because antibiotic treatment may help as well.

Q. What are the Symptoms of Food Poisoning? My kid started vomiting non-stop tonight, but has doesn't have a fever. We ate lunch at this new restaurant, could this be related? What are the symptoms of food poisoning?

A. Symptoms that occur within 1–6 hours after eating the food, suggest that it is caused by a bacterial toxin or a chemical in the food. During this short "incubation period", microbes pass through the stomach into the intestine, attach to the intestinal walls, and begin to multiply there. Some types of microbes stay in the intestine, some produce a toxin that is absorbed into the bloodstream, and some can directly invade the deeper body tissues. The symptoms produced depend on the type of microbe, but are most commonly vomiting, nausea, fever and stomach aches.

Q. How can I tell if I have food poisoning? I've been having diarrhea and been vomiting for 2 days now. How can I tell if it's food poisoning or anything else?

A. when i got food poisioned i was pooping and throwing up at the same time,it lasted for about 10 hours,

More discussions about poisoning
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