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Signs of Poisoning: When to Call Poison Control

Contributor Melisa Lai-Becker, MD
6 minute read
A distressed child holds her stomach while her concerned mother examines her.

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

  • Cleaning products

  • Animal or insect bites

  • Poisonous plants or mushrooms

  • Carbon monoxide

  • 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.

Step 1: Observe poisoning symptoms.

“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.

Poisoning symptoms

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Hyperactivity or agitation (moving nervously, fidgeting)

  • Vomiting

  • Abdominal pain

  • Trouble urinating

  • Drowsiness

  • Confusion

  • Difficulty breathing

Step 2: Confirm the potential toxin and the amount of exposure.

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.

Step 3: Call poison control.

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.

What to do if someone is poisoned

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:

Swallowed or ingested poisons

  • Remove anything from the person’s mouth.

  • Do not try to make them throw up.

  • If poisoning is due to an identified product, follow the protocols listed on the product’s packaging.

  • If opioid overdose is clear, Naloxone (Narcan®) nasal spray can save lives.

Inhaled poisons, like carbon monoxide

  • Relocate the person to fresh air immediately if safe to do so.

  • If not safe, call 9-1-1 and wait for rescue.

Skin exposures

  • Remove coated or saturated clothing.

  • Rinse skin with water according to poison control instructions, or until emergency help is available.

Eye exposures

Flush with lukewarm water according to poison control instructions, or until emergency help is available.

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.

Melisa Lai-Becker, MD


Emergency Medicine Doctor