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General Questions on Poisons

  • A poison is anything that can harm someone if it is:

    • Used in the wrong way
    • Used by the wrong person
    • Used in the wrong amount

    Some poisons may be harmful if they come into direct contact with your eyes or skin. Others may be toxic if you breathe them or swallow them. Poisons can come in four forms: solids (such as pain medicine pills or tablets), liquids (such as household cleaners, including bleach), sprays (such as spray cleaners), and gases (such as carbon monoxide, or CO).

    Most consumer products are safe if label directions are followed, but some can be poisonous if used incorrectly. Visit Prevention Tips for a list of different poisons and what you can do to avoid them.

  • Poison comes in four forms: solids (such as medicine pills or tablets), liquids (such as household cleaners including bleach), sprays (such as spray cleaners), and gases (such as carbon monoxide).

    Examples of poisons include:

    • Alcohol
    • Carbon monoxide (CO) gas
    • Medicines, such as prescription (painkillers, iron pills), over-the-counter (cough and cold medicines), and illegal drugs (cocaine, heroin)
    • Food supplements, such as vitamins, minerals, and herbal products
    • Personal care products, such as nail polish and nail polish remover, cologne, aftershave, deodorant, mouthwash, hydrogen peroxide, makeup, soap, contact lens solution, lotion, baby oil, and diaper rash products
    • Household and automotive chemicals or products, including bleach, laundry or dish detergent, furniture polish, cleanser, drain and toilet bowl cleaner, antifreeze, gasoline, paint, varnish, bug and weed killers
    • Other household items (batteries, lighter fluid, alcohol, cigarettes)
    • Plants, including many house plants, outdoor plants, and mushrooms
    • Bites and stings, including scorpion, wasp, and bee stings, as well as snake and spider bites
    • Hazardous chemicals at work and in the environment
  • A poisoned person may or may not look, act, or feel sick. If you think someone has been poisoned, right away call the toll-free Poison Help line (1-800-222-1222), which connects you to your local poison center. Do not wait for signs of poisoning.

  • Children under age 6 are carefree and learn by exploring the world around them. What children see and can reach, they often put in their mouths. Parents and other caregivers should teach children not to put objects in their mouths.

  • You may think that poisoning affects only a certain group of people—such as young children or older adults. This, however, is not true. Anyone, regardless of their age, race, ethnicity, or career, can be poisoned. Poisonings happen more often than you think.

    In 2008, 2.5 million people called a poison center because someone had been exposed to a poison. Children under age six accounted for half of all human poison exposures reported to poison centers. However, adults are also at risk. That year, more than three-quarters of all poisoning deaths reported to poison centers occurred among people ages 20 to 59.

    What are the risks throughout life?

    Certain kinds of poisonings are common among specific age groups. For example, older adults specifically need to be aware of the poisoning risks involved with taking prescription medications. Children are commonly poisoned through painkillers, cosmetics, personal care or cleaning products, pest killers, and plants. Preteens through older adults are commonly poisoned through herbal products, prescription drugs, alcohol, over-the-counter medicines, and spoiled food.

    People of all ages may be stung by a bee, splashed with a chemical, or exposed to carbon monoxide in their homes. People also may use a cleaning product without gloves.

    For more information on how poisonings can affect everyone, refer to the What You Can Do section.

    If you think someone has been poisoned, right away call the toll-free Poison Help line, 1-800-222-1222, which connects you to your local poison center.