Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Poison Prevention

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

Nov. 7, 2001 -- Shirley Rouse of Houston was panic-stricken when she discovered that her 2-year-old son Will had eaten the tiny, white, silica beads that he'd found in her new purse. "He asked if he could eat the 'candy,' " says Rouse. "I told him that the beads weren't candy and that he needed to throw the package away." Rouse left the room for only a few moments, but it was time enough for Will to swallow what he believed was a treat.

The first thing Rouse did was to assess the situation -- how sick was Will, and how many of the beads had he eaten? Not very, and not a lot. Then she grabbed the beads and called her local poison control center. Poison Control told her that the beads, used to absorb moisture and commonly found in new handbags and luggage, were nontoxic. But Rouse was still shaken.

She had good reason to be: Accidental childhood poisonings are common, and they don't always have good outcomes. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers' Toxic Exposure Surveillance System, in 1998 alone more than one million unintentional poisonings among children under the age of 6 were reported to U.S. poison control centers. Nineteen of these poisonings resulted in the deaths of children under the age of 6, the majority from ingesting common household agents such as nail polish remover, suntan lotion, mercury (found in thermometers), lighter fluid, and boric acid (found in pesticides).

Lifesaving Steps

Luckily, most poisonings involving kids under age 6 result in minor or no health problems, in part because the substances ingested are often not toxic, but also because parents follow proper first-aid procedures.

Apparently, Rouse did nearly everything correctly after she discovered that Will had eaten the beads, experts say. For starters, she contacted the right emergency resource, Poison Control, whose number she had posted next to her phone.

"The poison control center is actually better equipped to assess the situation than your pediatrician. They have volumes of information about which remedy is best for the particular toxic agent that has been ingested," says Keith M. Perrin, MD, Louisiana chairman of Safe Kids and a pediatrician at Napoleon Pediatrics in New Orleans. (Of course, if your area does not have a local poison control center, you should call 911.)

Rouse was also able to remain calm, which helped her act quickly and efficiently. "If Will saw I was upset, he wouldn't feel safe telling me what had really happened." Rouse also managed to accomplish the recommended task of bringing the beads with her to the telephone.

"This is important," says Rose Ann Soloway, RN, ABAT (a non-physician certification in clinical toxicology), associate director of the American Association of Poison Control Centers in Washington. "Parents are often in a hurry to call us, and having to run back and find the poison can really slow down the process."

If your situation is more dire -- if the child has swallowed something extremely toxic and fast-acting -- you may need to administer first aid right away. To speed up this process, Perrin recommends that one adult call Poison Control, while another adult take the following precautions:

  • If poison touches the skin, immediately wash the area with soap and warm water for 10 to 30 minutes. If there is blistering, take the child to the doctor immediately.
  • If a toxic substance gets in the eyes, flush eyes with warm water for 10 minutes.
  • If poison is inhaled, take the child outside for fresh air.
  • If breathing or heartbeat is absent, perform CPR and call 911 immediately.
  • If the child is unconscious or breathing is difficult or labored, call 911.

Poison Control or your pediatrician may recommend calling 911 for transport of the child to an emergency room, depending on the urgency of the situation.

If only one adult is present and the child is in imminent danger, first aid should be administered and 911 notified before calling Poison Control. Always err on the side of assuming the situation is urgent, if you are not sure.

Know the Signs and Hazards

Of course, you can take action only if you are aware of the signs of a poisoning, which can include difficulty breathing or speaking, dizziness, unconsciousness, foaming or burning of the mouth, cramps, nausea, and vomiting.

The younger the child, the more likely that he or she will ingest something dangerous. "Unintentional poisoning in children greatly drops off after 5 years of age," says Soloway. "Before then, you really can't leave your children alone in a room with available toxic agents or expect them to leave something alone when you tell them to."

Prevention is, as the saying goes, the best remedy. Be sure to keep the usual and the unusual suspects out of reach and out of sight. According to Soloway, the most dangerous household items for children under age 5 include prescription and nonprescription medication (such as cold medicine, aspirin, and antiseptic ointments), antifreeze, windshield cleaning solution, caustic chemicals (oven cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner), hydrocarbons (furniture polish, lamp oil, kerosene), pesticides, and alcohol.

Other less obvious substances should also be kept out of harm's way, she says, including iron supplements, which are the leading cause of pediatric poisoning death. Children have died of alcohol poisoning from drinking mouthwash. And nicotine in any form is also hazardous; a single cigarette can cause seizures within 30 minutes of being swallowed by a child.

All of these items should be kept locked up and in their original, childproof packaging. "People don't always replace a childproof cap securely, so it's easier for them to get it off the next time, which is just asking for trouble," says Soloway.

Perrin also says that cosmetics and other attractively packaged items found in mom's purse are dangerous. "Children like anything colorful that may look like a toy or candy," says Perrin. "Unfortunately, a lot of household cleaners that can be very harmful do come in colorful packaging."

Like Will, most little kids can't be expected to follow Mommy's orders when something enticing is within arm's length. "He just couldn't resist something that he thought was a treat," says Rouse, who now keeps anything remotely suspect out of her son's reach.

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