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Virginia Poison Center: A trusted resource for 30,000 callers a year

The free, 24/7 service has answered questions about poison exposures since 1958.

Dr. Ruddy Rose in front of Poison Control Images

When one of the most venomous snakes in the world, the African pit viper, bit its owner, poison specialists and toxicologists at the Virginia Poison Center had to identify and locate the necessary, lifesaving anti-venom quickly, according to  Dr. Ruddy Rose, longtime director of the Virginia Poison Center. Fortunately, Rose’s team acted quickly, ultimately saving the patient’s life.

A community resource for residents of central and eastern Virginia since 1958, the Virginia Poison Center is one of only 55 poison centers in the United States. Both health care providers and patients alike rely on the expertise of Dr. Rose and his staff. When anyone in central or eastern Virginia calls (800) 222-1222, a VCU Health provider answers and helps navigate questions about snakebites, chemical exposures or medication overdoses.

Demand has increased over 25% since the start of the pandemic, due to more families staying home and having easy access to household cleaners and chemicals. On average, the Virginia Poison Center responds to about 30,000 calls a year.

VCU Health News talked with Rose, who has been leading the Virginia Poison Center since 1997, about the work of poison centers and the hazards their callers have encountered.

How do the poison centers function in the United States?

The Virginia Poison Center is a resource for the community. Not every state has a poison center but in Virginia there is a state law that says we need one. There are 55 in the United States. There are three centers that serve Virginia — one here at VCU Health, one at the University of Virginia, and one in Washington, D.C. that serves northern Virginia. People call a poison center after exposures to medications, illicit drugs, chemicals, bites and stings or other types of incidents.

How many calls does the Virginia Poison Center receive per year and what are the most common types of calls?

We get about 30,000 calls a year, of which 26,000 are human exposures. The types of calls vary greatly, ranging from exploratory ingestions by children to chemical exposures to medication overdose. Our call center is staffed with registered nurses who have received specialized training in toxicology to answer calls from the public and regional health care providers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Is the Virginia Poison Center an effective way to manage those types of incidents?

Yes, poison centers are very cost effective. Studies have shown that poison centers prevent a lot of unnecessary health care costs and are second only to immunizations in terms of cost savings. For example, if you have a child at home that gets into a household product or a medication, 90% of the time if you call a poison center right away, we can get that child to stay at home. We do follow-up calls and make sure everything is OK. That prevents an unnecessary 911 call and emergency department visit. In many cases, we are able to reassure people that everything will be alright.

Aside from the calls, what other support does the Virginia Poison Center provide?

We work directly with the emergency department at VCU Medical Center and other hospitals in the region. When a more serious poison incident has occurred, the medical staff needs our expertise. We work with doctors and providers at 58 different hospitals, urgent care centers and freestanding emergency departments in central and eastern Virginia.

What trends have you seen recently?

One of the biggest trends recently was exposures to bleach, cleaning products and hand sanitizers associated with COVID-19. Exposures occurred due to misuse, overuse or unintentional exposures in children.

Do the types of questions you receive change throughout the year?

Yes. Summer travel and vacations do tend to be associated with an increase in pediatric exposures, as families may be in unfamiliar surroundings when at rental houses or hotels, and medications may not be as secure as when at home. Summer also brings exposures to chlorine and pool products, drinking suntan lotion by mistake (or getting into eyes), and an increase in bites and stings, especially snakebites and also jellyfish stings near the bay or beach.

How involved was the center with the chemical exposure at the Chesterfield County pool?

We helped manage each of those cases. We got calls from people who got exposed at the scene, from the EMS teams and from emergency departments. We used our expertise to find out what the chemicals were, and we were able to make recommendations right away.

For more information about the Virginia Poison Center, visit poison.vcu.edu.


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