Ingestion of a Poisonous Substance

Ingesting a poisonous substance could be accidental or intentional.

Danger sign - picture of skull and crossbones against striped green background

Young children are most prone to accidental ingestion of poisonous substances – an event that may happen commonly in kitchens or bathrooms at home.

The most common items ingested are:

  • dishwashing detergents
  • colognes and perfumes
  • toilet cleaners
  • bleaches
  • fabric softeners
  • simple liquid soaps

But some people may ingest a poisonous substance with the goal of harming themselves (attempt at suicide).

In addition to the physical harm, there are also mental health issues to deal with.

In the case of intentional overdose, securing physical wellbeing is paramount.

Consider the following scenario:

You return home from work late one evening and find your niece on the floor in the living room – she appears disoriented and her breathing is strange.

There is a strong smell of vomit around her.

You notice some empty medicine bottles labelled Codeine and realise she must have taken an overdose but do not know how long ago this happened.

A similar scenario though unintentional is quite common among children and the reason why it’s important to always keep chemicals out of their reach.

Common symptoms of ingestion of a poisonous substance are:

  • difficulty breathing
  • swelling of the throat, lips, and tongue
  • chemical burns on the skin
  • vision loss, if the soap product has burned the eyes
  • gastrointestinal symptoms, including vomiting repeatedly or with blood
    burns to the food pipe
  • severe stomach pain
  • low blood pressure
When you suspect ingestion of a poisonous substance, the next thing to do is:
  • (If the victim is unconscious or not breathing), Call an emergency ambulance.
  • When they are awake and alert: Call the poison centre in your locality, or seek urgent medical advice by visiting your local clinic or hospital.

If you are able to contact the local poison centre, remain calm and follow the operator’s instructions. Be ready to answer questions such as:

  • Age of victim
  • Address where it occurred
  • Time of ingestion
  • Nature of substance
  • Victim’s present state and symptoms
  • Having to hand the material you suspect has been ingested is VERY useful as different substances require different treatment e.g. acid or bleach ingestion vs overdose of paracetamol.

While waiting for help with someone who is very ill:

  • Remove anything you can see remaining in the person’s mouth (like tablets).
  • If they are unconscious, keep them semi-prone – that is on their left side so if they vomit they do not choke.
  • Avoid trying to make people vomit except under medical supervision
  • Loosen or removes restrictive clothing
  • Be careful about giving water or milk to drink – this should only be done after you seek medical advice

Be especially careful with kids who may have swallowed medicines tablets), lithium button batteries – they will need EMERGENCY help as the effects of the poison can act fast.

Also recall that poisonous substances could also splash in the eyes, damage the skin or be inhaled.

Return to ‘Heart Stopping emergencies that could happen at Home’