Poisoning emergencies are common in homes and workplaces and are one of the leading causes of accidental injury and death. Melisa Lai-Becker, MD, an emergency medicine doctor and medical toxicologist at Mass General Brigham, has treated many people for poisoning.
Dr. Lai-Becker explains that there are multiple routes of exposure to common poisons and toxins: they can be ingested, inhaled, absorbed through skin, or be transmitted via contact with poisonous plants or animals in the environment.
Common poisons include:
Chemical toxins, vapors, or fumes
Animal or insect bites
Poisonous plants or mushrooms
Medication or drug overdoses
Bad interactions between different drugs or medications
If you suspect someone has been poisoned, follow the steps below to help identify the source of poisoning and get emergency help.
“A person with acute poisoning can display a wide range of symptoms depending on the exposure,” says Dr. Lai-Becker. “Or, in some poisonings, a person may have no symptoms for several hours.”
If you are aiding someone whom you believe may have been poisoned, check for the following symptoms. In most cases, you should call emergency help lines as soon as possible, especially if the person has any of the symptoms listed below.
Loss of consciousness
Hyperactivity or agitation (moving nervously, fidgeting)
When a person has symptoms of poisoning, the next crucial step is to identify what has made them sick:
Ask the affected person if they know what is making them sick.
Look around their immediate surroundings to try to determine the source of their poisoning.
These questions can help you identify a poisoning source:
Are there any unusual smells in the air?
Are there empty medicine bottles or containers of chemicals or cleaners?
Could it be alcohol or drug poisoning?
Do they have anything that looks like an animal or insect bite that could be from a spider or a venomous snake?
Look for clues in the environment for what might have happened and call the appropriate emergency number depending on the severity of the symptoms.
If the person confirms an exposure or you find evidence of one, call poison control immediately at 1-800-222-1222. Call 9-1-1 if the person loses consciousness, loses control of their body, or has trouble breathing.
While waiting for help, emergency dispatchers may guide you on ways to assist according to the suspected type of poisoning. Here are some tips depending on the poison involved:
Accidental poisonings happen more frequently than we would like, and often affect small children or others who can have trouble communicating what is wrong. If you remain calm, act fast, and contact poison control, you can prevent injury and even save lives.