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Accidental poisoning: When to call the poison experts

Woman looking at pills in her hand

                                                                                                                                             Photo: Getty Images

Unintentional poisoning is the leading cause of injury death for all age groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). National Poison Prevention Week, March 15-21, 2020, is a great time to review safety precautions and what to do should a poisoning take place.

The Virginia Poison Center at VCU Health is one of three centers in the state where registered nurses and board-certified toxicologists provide fast, expert assistance to worried callers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Handling almost 30,000 calls a year, the Virginia Poison Center is well equipped to advise callers concerned about a possible poisoning — from exposure to insects and animal bites to ingestion of household chemicals.
Fiorella Carhauz, public educator at the Virginia Poison Center, recently answered some questions about how to prevent poisoning and what to do should you or a loved one be poisoned. 

What is considered a poisoning?

A poison is anything that can cause harm to your body. A poison can enter your body through inhalation, skin or eye absorption, ingestion or injection. Even seemingly harmless items can be poisonous if used in the wrong way, in the wrong amount or by the wrong person.

When should you call the poison center?

Always call the center right away, even if you just suspect a poisoning. For example, many calls are about small children being poisoned by medications left on a nightstand or table with no child resistant containers. In this case, call us if you think your child may have ingested this medication. 

Is the poison center only for parents of young children?

We get this question a lot. We are glad to say that poison centers are for everyone. Small children make up about half of the callers. However, teens and tweens, adults and older adults make up the other half. 

What are the benefits of calling the poison center instead of going to the emergency room? Or going to the internet?

Medical professionals handle the calls at the poison center. The same cannot be said for the internet, where information may be inaccurate or confusing. When a poisoning happens, call the experts. Our nurses can determine whether you need to go to the ER or if you can treat the poisoning at home. In fact, most calls from home can be managed by phone, saving an unnecessary trip to the ER.

What should callers expect when calling the poison center? 

When you call the poison center, a nurse specializing in poisoning treatment and prevention will answer — not a volunteer or a machine. Be ready to provide such details as: 

• The poisoning substance 
• The patient’s weight 
• How long ago the poisoning took place

The nurse will guide you until he or she has all the information necessary to accurately assess the situation. 

Keep your family safe

The following tips will help protect you and your family from accidental poisoning:
• Be prepared for a poisoning emergency. Save the poison helpline number on your phone or put it on your refrigerator for easy access.

• Make safe storage a priority in your home. Always store medicines and hazardous substances up, away and out of sight — preferably in a locked container. 

• Avoid container transfer. Never transfer toxic products to food or beverage containers.

• Read the label each and every time. Review medicine and product labels every time you use them. Teach your children to only take medicine that a parent or caregiver has given them.

• Be aware of everyday items that can pose a hazard. Many everyday household items can be poisonous. Be aware of small magnets, button batteries and e-cigarette paraphernalia. Remember that over-the-counter medications also pose a risk. Store cough and cold medications in a safe place children can’t access.

Call our helpline

The best way to prepare yourself for a poisoning emergency is by saving our poison helpline on your phone: 1-800-222-1222. You can also text the word poison to 797979 to have the contact information sent to your phone directly.