Poisoning is when a person is exposed to a substance that can damage their health or endanger their life.
Signs and symptoms of poisoning
Most cases of poisoning happen at home and children under five have the highest risk of accidental poisoning.
In around one in four reported cases, the person intentionally poisoned themselves as a deliberate act of self-harm.
The symptoms of poisoning will depend on the type of poison and the amount taken in, but general things to look out for include:
If a child suddenly develops these symptoms, without them first having an illness or temperature, they may have been poisoned. This is particularly if they're drowsy and confused.
Whether the symptoms have been caused by poisoning or not, they are serious symptoms that need medical attention (see ‘what to do’ section below).
What to do
If you suspect that someone has taken an overdose or has been poisoned, don't try to treat them yourself. Get medical help immediately.
If you are unable to access advice quickly and you suspect the substance involved is a medication or a potentially hazardous substance (check product labels for warnings or information), go immediately to your nearest emergency department.
Call 999 for an ambulance or take the person to your local emergency department if they are showing signs of being seriously ill such as:
- loss of consciousness
- seizures (fits)
In serious cases, it may be necessary for the person to stay in hospital for treatment. Most people admitted to hospital because of poisoning will survive.
How to help medical staff
Medical staff will need to take a detailed history to effectively treat a person who's been poisoned. When the paramedics arrive or when you arrive at accident and emergency, give them as much information as you can, including:
- what substances you think the person may have swallowed
- when the substance was taken (how long ago)
- why the substance was taken – whether it was an accident or deliberate
- how it was taken (for example, swallowed or inhaled)
- how much was taken (if you know)
Give details of any symptoms the person has had, such as whether they've been sick.
Medical staff may also want to know:
- the person's age and estimated weight
- whether they have any existing medical conditions
- whether they're taking any medication (if you know)
The container the substance came in will help give medical staff a clear idea of what it is. If you don't know what caused the poisoning, blood tests may be needed to identify the cause.
Types of poisons
Poisons can be swallowed, absorbed through the skin, inhaled, splashed into the eyes, or injected.
A medication overdose is one of the most common forms of poisoning. This can include both over-the-counter medications, such as paracetamol, and prescription medications, such as antidepressants.
Other potential poisons include:
- household products, such as bleach
- cosmetic items, such as nail polish
- some types of plants and fungi
- certain types of household chemicals and pesticides
- carbon monoxide
- poorly prepared or cooked food, and food that's gone mouldy or been contaminated with bacteria from raw meat (food poisoning)
- alcohol, if too much is consumed over a short period of time (alcohol poisoning)
- recreational drugs or substances
Insects, such as wasps and bees, aren't poisonous, but their bites or stings can contain venom (toxin) that can cause an allergic reaction, sometimes severe.
In some countries, there are snakes and insects with poisonous venom that means if you are bitten, you will require urgent treatment.
There are several things you can do to reduce your or your child’s risk of poisoning.
These include carefully reading the patient information leaflet that comes with your medication, and ensuring that any poisonous substances are locked away out of the sight and reach of your children.
More useful links
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
For further information see terms and conditions.