Handling a Poisoning Emergency

Medical Author: Melissa Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: Dennis Lee, MD

Quick action is critical if you suspect someone is a victim of poisoning. About half of poisoning emergencies involve small children, but medication errors, suicide attempts, chemical spills, misuse of household products, and workplace exposures can all lead to poisoning emergencies.

The U.S. has a nationwide, 24-hour poison hotline sponsored by the American Association of Poison Control Centers at 1-800-222-1222. Calling this number will allow you to be directly connected to the local poison control center nearest you. Each poison control center is staffed by experts who will tell you what to do in your particular situation. Be sure to describe as accurately as you can the condition of the victim and what substances or medications you believe may have caused the poisoning. Many poisoning problems can be handled over the phone. If you need an ambulance, the poison control center will call one for you, advise the treatment crew, and alert the emergency room. For peace of mind, especially for families with small children, this telephone number should be posted near every telephone in the house.

If a victim is unconscious, having seizures, or having difficulty breathing, call emergency services (911) first.

In certain cases of poisoning, basic first aid may be carried out immediately. If poisonous substances have been spilled on the skin or splashed in the eye, the affected area can be rinsed under cold running water for 15 minutes. Never try to force the eye open to do this. You should also remove any clothing where poison has spilled. You should still call the poison hotline at 1-800-222-1222 as soon as possible.

If a poison has been inhaled, get the victim to fresh air or provide fresh air by opening doors or windows, then call the poison hotline.

In other cases, always call the poison hotline and don't attempt any treatment unless advised to do so by the poison control center. Prompt action can save a poisoning victim's life. If you are unsure if a poisoning has occurred, call anyway - never wait to see if symptoms improve or worsen.


Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/9/2014