If you have toddlers or small children, you may have already poison-proofed your house. If not, the sooner you get started, the better.
Children between the ages of 1 and 6 years old are at the highest risk for poisoning because they are mobile, curious, and likely to put almost anything into their mouths. After the introduction of child-safety caps in the 1970s, the number of children’s deaths by accidental poisoning fell drastically. However, no cap is completely childproof, and many other common household substances — from cleaning supplies to cosmetics — can be very dangerous or fatal to children who swallow or inhale them. Many products can also cause burns if they come into contact with skin or eyes.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, each year poison control centers receive more than 1 million calls as a result of unintentional poisonings. You can help prevent accidents by recognizing harmful substances and storing them properly, as well as knowing what to do if a child swallows, inhales, or touches something poisonous.
What are some common dangerous substances?
Many of the items on this list are obviously poisonous — others may surprise you.
- Vitamins, especially those containing iron. (Vitamin pills with iron are some of the most common causes of children’s death in accidental poisonings.)
- Painkillers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), and aspirin.
- Other over-the-counter medications, especially cold medicine, decongestants, diet pills, and sleeping pills.
- Prescription medication, especially tranquilizers, antidepressants, and medicines used to treat diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart conditions.
Cosmetics and other personal-care products
- Creams and lotions.
- Perfume, cologne, or aftershave.
- Nail polish and remover.
- Toothpaste or mouthwash (if large amounts are swallowed).
Garage and household items
- Cleaning products and solvents, including laundry and dishwasher detergent (liquid or powder), bleach, ammonia, furniture or metal polish, oven cleaner, drain cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner, and rust remover.
- Automotive supplies, including gas, antifreeze, windshield wiper fluid, motor oil, and cleaning solutions.
- Lawn and garden products, including fertilizer, pesticides, and weed killer.
- Accelerants such as lighter fluid, kerosene, lamp oil, paint thinner, and turpentine.
- Epoxy and other liquid adhesives.
- Art supplies.
Dozens of houseplants are potentially dangerous if eaten, not to mention the hazards from chemical fertilizers. Check to see whether the plants inside your home are poisonous — as well as potted plants on patios or decks that are accessible to small children. Dieffenbachias, for example, are common plants in the home. But they can cause stomach irritation and nausea if eaten. Christmas baskets are sometimes decorated with mistletoe, another poisonous plant. If you’re not sure whether your houseplants are safe, call your local poison control center to request a list of poisonous plants common to your area.
If you don’t know what kinds of houseplants you have, cut off a small piece and take it to a plant nursery — an employee may be able to identify it for you. You can also just remove your plants to a room or shelf that can easily be made off limits to your young child. Some of these plants may also be found in gardens, so you should consider removing them if you have a curious toddler who may be left unattended even for a few minutes in the backyard.
How can I protect my children from a poisoning accident?
Start by taking a room-by-room inventory of the supplies you have in your house. (You can use the examples listed above as a guideline.) Then make sure all poisons are clearly labeled and stored out of reach — and out of sight — of children. To get a better idea of what exactly is out of reach, get down on your knees and take a look around from the view of a small child.
Here are some further steps you can take to keep your family safe:
- Always store medicines and household products in their original containers. Putting paint thinner in a juice or soda bottle is asking for trouble.
- Don’t rely on childproof caps. Most caps are child-resistant, rather than 100 percent childproof. With enough time, it’s possible for a child to find a way to open the most difficult container.
- Don’t take medicine in front of children, especially right out of the bottle. Kids like to imitate what they see adults doing.
- Always replace the caps of medicine bottles immediately after use.
- Never refer to medication as candy in order to entice children to take it. Young children do not understand the difference between real and pretend candy, and might accidentally take medications that could harm them.
- Store alcohol in a locked cabinet. Empty glasses immediately after you are done using them. Even small amounts of alcohol can be dangerous for young children.
- Be especially vigilant when you visit relatives or have visitors in your home. People who take medications may not be used to putting them away out of children’s reach.
- Go through your medicine cabinet once a year. Get rid of all expired medications by following manufacturer’s instructions for disposal.
What are the signs of poisoning?
There are many signs of poisoning, and some will be more obvious than others. An open or spilled container may be the first indication that your child got into something he shouldn’t have. Another important sign is when previously well children suddenly develop unusual symptoms like being sleepy when it’s not nap time or being unable to focus their eyes.
Here are some more common poisoning signs to be aware of:
- Burns on skin, especially around the mouth or on the hands.
- Strange-smelling breath.
- Excessive drooling, especially if it’s sudden and comes with other symptoms.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Unexplained nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
- Stomach pain.
- Headache or blurred vision.
- Behavioral changes, such as sleepiness or irritability.
- Seizures, convulsions or loss of consciousness.
What should I do if I think my child has been poisoned?
If you suspect your child has ingested a poisonous substance, call the American Association of Poison Control Center’s help line at 800-222-1222 immediately. Even if your child seems fine, call right away. Don’t wait for symptoms to worsen! Be prepared to give the following information:
- Child’s age, weight, and condition.
- Amount and type of poison.
- What time the poisoning happened.
- Your name and telephone number.
Do NOT induce vomiting and do not give a child activated charcoal or anything else (even water) without checking with emergency medical help first. Also, using syrup of ipecac to induce vomiting is no longer recommended as a treatment for poisoning.
If your child has spilled a toxic substance on her skin, remove her clothing, rinse the skin in room-temperature water for at least 15 minutes, then call the poison control center. (If there is another adult home, have that person call while you rinse.)
If your child has gotten a poisonous substance in her eyes, flush the eye with room-temperature water for 15 minutes, then call the poison control center. Be sure to hold the affected eye open and pour the water from 2 to 4 inches away. (If there is another adult home, have that person call while you rinse.)
Poisoning by fumes
Children (and adults) can be also be poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes from a car that is left running in a garage (even with the door open), from leaky gas vents, from fireplaces or stoves that are not properly vented, and from space heaters that use gas. If you suspect a child has been exposed to such fumes, get him out in the fresh air right away. Then call 911 or the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ help line at 800-222-1222 for treatment advice.
If the child has stopped breathing, start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and continue for one minute before calling 911. (If there is someone else in the house, have that person call 911 while you administer CPR. Do not stop CPR until the child is breathing again.)
American Academy of Pediatrics. Don’t Treat Swallowed Poison With Syrup of Ipecac.
American Academy of Pediatrics. How to Poison-Proof Your Home.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Protect Your Child from Poison. Medical Library.
American Academy of Pediatrics. The Injury Prevention Program: Protect Your Child — Prevent Poisoning.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Handling a Poison Emergency. Medical Library.
American Association of Poison Control Centers. Poisoning Fact Sheet, Quick Facts on Poison Exposures in the United States, Prevention Tips, First Aid Tips, Preventing Poisoning in the Home.
Board on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. Forging a Poison Prevention and Control System.
Canadian Child Care Federation. Safety in the Arts. http://www.cccf-fcsge.ca/docs/cccf/rs021_en.htm
California Childcare Health Program. Beware of Poisonous Houseplants. Fact Sheet. http://www.ucsfchildcarehealth.org/pdfs/factsheets/PoisnplantenEn1108.pdf
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Poisoning in the United States: Fact Sheet. http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/factsheets/poisoning.htm
Children’s Environmental Health Network. Children and Solvents.
Childcare Health Program. Beware of Poisonous Houseplants. Fact Sheets for Families.
Consumer Product Safety Commission. Poison Lookout Checklist, Locked Up Poisons: Prevent Tragedy.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Protect Your Child from Poisons in Your Home, Use Caution with Pain Relievers. Preventing Iron Poisoning in Children. Preventing Childhood Poisoning.
Iowa Statewide Poison Control Center. Seniors and Medication Safety.
Maryland Department of the Environment. Recycling Automobile Products.
Massachusetts and Rhode Island Poison Center. Common Poisons. Poisoning Basics. If You Suspect a Poisoning.
Merck Manual of Medical Information. Burns.
Minnesota Poison Control System. How to prevent poisonings.
National Agricultural Safety Database. Symptoms and First Aid for Poisonings. http://nasdonline.org/document/977/d000817/symptoms-and-first-aid-for-poisonings.html
National Institutes of Health. Health and Safety Information on Household Products. June 2010. http://householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov/
National Safety Council. How to Prevent Poisonings in Your Home. http://www.nsc.org/news_resources/Resources/Documents/How_to_Prevent_Poisonings_in_Your_Home2.pdf
Nemours Foundation. Childproofing and Preventing Household Accidents. http://kidshealth.org/parent/firstaid_safe/home/childproof.html
North Carolina State University. Poisonous Plants of North Carolina. Dieffenbachia.
University of Maryland Medicine. Poisons. http://www.umm.edu/pediatric-info/poisons.htm
Vanderbilt Center in Molecular Toxicology. Acetone (Nail Polish/Remover). April 1999.
National Capital Poison Center. Poison Exposures in the United States. http://www.poison.org/prevent/documents/poison%20stats.pdf
American Academy of Pediatrics. What to do in a Poisoning Emergency.