Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we or those we care about may fall victim to poisoning. It could be as simple as eating expired food or ingesting the wrong kind of substance, material or plant. In fact, according to the National Capital Poison Center, in 2017 there were greater than 2.1 million recorded cases of poisoning nationwide. That’s one poison incident reported every 15 seconds!
In this article, we’ll show you how to give temporary relief to anyone who may have swallowed, inhaled or exposed their eyes or skin to a poisonous substance.
Regardless of how the victim got poisoned, call 911 or visit the poison control website for online assistance, or call the Poison Control helpline at 1-800-222-1222 from any U.S. state.
While waiting for medical assistance to arrive or before you get to the hospital, perform the following measures to aid in treatment and recovery:
1. Take Note of the Symptoms
The caveat with poisoning symptoms is that they can be numerous and varied. Some symptoms may appear harmless, but they must not be dismissed.
Here are some common signs of poisoning to watch out for. Note that they may manifest individually or in combination:
- Unusual heartbeat: Irregular, slowed or quickened heartbeat
- Extreme enlargement or shrinking of the pupils
- Extremes in salivation: drooling or drying of the mouth
- Changes in breathing, whether hastened or slowed
- Pain in areas where the poison could travel: mouth, digestive tract, stomach
- Pain in areas exposed to the poison or areas where it was inhaled (eyes, skin, nose, chest)
- Extremes in the victim’s behavior: hyperactivity or drowsiness
- Confusion, anxiety or any other altered and unusual mental state
- Changes in skin color or skin condition: rashes, blistering, skin turning pale, blue or red
- Nausea and vomiting (blood may be present in the vomit)
- Tinnitus or ringing in the ears
- Blurred vision
- Erratic blood pressure, whether extremely high or low
- Burns or redness on the mouth or lips
- Chemical-smelling breath
Again, should any of these or other more serious and unusual symptoms manifest, call 911 or the Poison Control helpline, especially if the victim is rendered unconscious and unresponsive. Contact emergency medical services or take the victim to the hospital regardless of whether they’re feeling any pain or discomfort.
Don’t assume that these symptoms will go away or that the victim’s condition will improve; some poisoning symptoms can be delayed and it’s best not to delay obtaining medical assistance.
2. Apply First Aid
If you even suspect someone has been poisoned, call 911 and apply the first aid measures appropriate to their case.
If Poison is Swallowed
When a poisonous substance is ingested, regardless if it was a liquid or solid, apply the following first aid measures:
- Spit out any poison that may remain in the mouth. Never put your hands in the victim’s mouth.
- Ask the victim what they swallowed, how much of it and when. If you are the poisoning victim, then try to recall what you swallowed in the past hour.
- If the victim is conscious and responsive, have them drink a small amount of water or milk immediately, especially if the substance is caustic, meaning it can burn organic tissue by chemical action. Don’t force the victim to drink if they’re convulsing, unconscious or unable to swallow.
- Don’t induce vomiting, especially if the poison is caustic; this will only cause serious damage to the victim’s internal organs as the poison comes back up.
- If the victim can’t help but vomit, collect some of the vomit in a bag or container and give it to the doctor. This can help them identify the poison and the appropriate treatment needed.
- Monitor the victim’s condition. Take note of their heart rate, lucidity and breathing.
- If the victim becomes unconscious, check their airway and breathing; clear their airway of any obstructions. Place them in the recovery position (see sidebar below). If they’ve stopped breathing, perform CPR and continue to do so until help arrives.
It’s also important to never give any sort of juice or “homeopathic mixture” you may have heard might “neutralize the poison”. Every poison is different and requires specialized diagnosis and treatment.
An old “remedy” that was prescribed decades ago to anyone who swallowed any poisonous substance was to give them syrup of ipecac to induce vomiting. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Association of Poison Control Centers no longer endorse ipecac.
No evidence exists that proves the use of ipecac benefits any poisoning victims; in fact, its use may even do more damage to the victim. Should you find any old bottles of ipecac in your home, dispose of them.
If Poison is in the Eye
Should any poison go onto or enter either of the victim’s eyes, perform the following:
- Remove contact lenses, if any.
- Rinse the exposed eye or eyes immediately. Every second that passes without irrigating afflicted eyes can increase the risk of permanent blindness.
- Irrigate the eyes with clean, room-temperature water continuously for 15-20 minutes.
- If the victim is an adult or elder child, they can stand in the shower to irrigate their eyes. Younger, smaller children can have their eyes irrigated by running water over their eyes in the kitchen faucet, or slowly pouring water on the afflicted eyes using a pitcher.
- Let the affected eyes rest after the 15-20 minute irrigation. If any pain, irritation, redness, visual problems, swelling or tearing up are evident after the procedure, the victim will need to be brought to the ER.
- If the symptoms are serious, don’t wait for the condition to subside; get the victim to the nearest hospital ASAP.
If Poison is on Skin
Some poisons can cause irritation, swelling, rashes and other serious symptoms if they get spilled onto bare skin. If you suspect a poisonous substance has been spilled on your skin or on another’s skin, take these measures:
- Put on gloves and carefully remove any contaminated clothing. Store any poison-spilled articles of clothing in a garbage bag to prevent contaminating anyone or anything else.
- As with first aid for the eyes, rinse the affected areas of the body with clean water. Do this for 15-20 minutes in the shower or with a faucet or hose.
- Don’t use soap to remove the poison unless you know exactly what it is and have consulted with the Poison Control Center and they’ve given you the advice to do so. Using soap to remove an unidentified poison from your skin may cause an additional adverse chemical reaction.
- Seek medical attention after you’ve irrigated the affected areas.
If Poison is Inhaled
Toxic substances can also be in the form of smoke or fumes and can sometimes even be colorless. Should any poisonous fumes or smoke make their way through a victim’s nose and mouth, do the following:
- If you have a gas mask, put it on first before getting to a victim who’s in an area filled with poisonous fumes. A temporary “mask” can be improvised with a damp cloth placed over your mouth and nose.
- Hold your breath as long as you can when you’re near the source of the poisonous fumes.
- Get the victim(s) out of the area and move them to fresh air immediately.
- Thoroughly ventilate the involved area but remain in a better-ventilated area until help arrives.
- Stay away from all industrial sites, newly-painted or fumigated rooms and keep well away from any site where you even suspect toxic fumes or gases may be present.
- Have the victim and yourself checked by doctors even if you don’t appear to have any obvious symptoms, even if you feel fine.
What to Do When the Victim Feels Faint
If the victim feels weak or faint and it seems that they may lose consciousness, get the victim into the recovery position.
To get the victim in this position, follow these steps:
Step 1. Get them to lie down on their left side with a pillow or cushion behind their back.
Step 2. Pull their right leg up at the knee, to keep them from rolling.
Step 3. Extend their left arm at a 90-degree angle in front of their body.
Step 4. Place their right arm across their chest, tucking their right hand under the side of the head like a pillow.
This position will keep the victim’s airway unobstructed, even if they lose consciousness or vomit. Keep the victim in this position until paramedics arrive.
Most cases of general poisoning can be avoided with applied awareness and foresight, but some seemingly “harmless” everyday items in your medicine cabinet or cupboard can become deadly poisons or toxic when misused. Take note of these important tips to prevent any of your family members from falling victim to any poisons:
- Throw out old expired medicines and organize your medicine cabinet and first aid kit. It’s easy to mistakenly take expired medicines, or the wrong ones if they’re stored with your other medications.
- Keep all household chemicals like detergents, dishwashing liquid, surface cleaners, insecticides, herbicides, rat poison, etc. in cabinets you can lock and keep away from the hands of small children.
- Never store your foodstuffs with anything inedible or potentially poisonous to “maximize cabinet space”.
- Always keep your liquor under lock and key.
- Never refer to any medicine as “candy” to children; this will “program” them to put anything colorful (liquid or solid) they come across into their mouth.
- Read the labels on your “common household medicines” and take note of their active ingredients; even simple medications like Tylenol (also used by the elderly as a “therapeutic” pill for staving off heart attacks) can be dangerous if taken in large amounts – overusing the drug can cause severe liver damage.
- Never take for granted the instructions of your doctor for any medication or supplement. Even simple vitamin pills or supplements can be deadly – taking too many Vitamin A or D tablets can have varying effects, like liver damage, nausea, vomiting and appetite loss.
- Be sure to check all your gas lines and connections for leaks; replace any old or worn equipment. Apart from being a fire hazard, gas leaks can be difficult to detect and may poison your entire family as you sleep.
- Don’t close your garage door immediately after you’ve parked and shut off your vehicle’s engine; toxic carbon monoxide fumes can accumulate in the area, especially if your garage isn’t well-ventilated. Wait a couple of minutes before closing the garage door after you’ve shut off your car’s engine.
- Refrain from using or occupying any rooms above the garage.
The plain and simple truth when it comes to poisoning is, there is little that can be done apart from the first aid measures listed in this article; these are only temporary measures to ease the pain of symptoms or even slow the effects of any poisons.
If you suspect you or anyone close to you has been poisoned, it’s important that you stay calm and perform the applicable first-aid measures, then call 911 or leave immediately for the nearest hospital or medical facility.
Once you get to the hospital, provide as much information about the poisoning case as you can. These details may be able to assist the medical team in their diagnosis and treatment of the victim:
- All of the victim’s symptoms
- The victim’s age and approximate weight
- Any history of illness or hereditary illness
- Any medications or supplements the victim is taking
- How much of the poison the victim has swallowed, inhaled or been exposed to (if possible)
- Provide any “sample” of the poison or even of any vomit the victim expelled. Bring any containers or samples of any substances you suspect contain the poisonous substance.
Sometimes in SHTF situations, you might know which chemical substance was inhaled, ingested or spilled on the victim’s skin or eyes; in this case, you can refer to the label as manufacturers usually provide instructions for treatment. Take their advice and use them along with these first aid measures, then get to a hospital.