The Medical Minute: Poison dangers in and around the home

July 15, 2004

By John Messmer
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

Everyone knows that household products such as pesticides and cleansers are poisonous, but we also handle potentially dangerous substances every day without knowing it. Exposures to medications, cosmetics and personal-care items are among the more than 2 million reports to poison control centers each year. More than 90 percent of poisonings occur in the home -- 85 percent are accidental and more than half of poison exposures are in children under age 6.

Medications are a significant part of both intentional and unintentional poisonings. Children may imitate adults who take medication for legitimate reasons or may assume that if the vitamin they get everyday is good for them, it's all right to take more. The problem is vitamins A, D, E and K are toxic in higher doses, as are iron and fluoride. Acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin and others) also are toxic in high doses and acetaminophen poisoning is not apparent until a few days after the exposure, when often it is too late to treat.

If you take medication in the dark or put your pills into a different container -- particularly one without a label -- you could take the wrong thing. Taking the wrong medication is one thing, but extra medication can be more dangerous than no treatment. Many medications that are safe at proper doses can seriously harm or kill in higher-than-prescribed dosages.

Sharing medication is another cause of unintentional poisoning. Even though someone has the same symptoms or problem as you, the medication you take may not be safe in another person. That person may have an entirely different problem with the same symptoms, may be on another medication that cannot be combined with your pills or may have a medical condition that precludes the use of that medicine.

Besides drugs and chemicals, poisoning can occur with carbon monoxide as a result of faulty heaters, particularly space heaters, or improperly ventilated home-heating systems. Since carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, victims typically are unaware of their exposure. High levels can kill without warning. Chronic low levels can cause fatigue, weakness, headaches, dizziness, confusion, ringing in the ears and nausea. Diagnosis is made by a blood test. Affordable carbon monoxide monitors for the house are essential if you have a stove, heater or heating system that burns fuel - oil, kerosene, coal, charcoal or wood.

Lead poisoning continues to be a problem in some areas. Older houses with lead-based paint are one source, but folk remedies, improperly glazed pottery and air pollution also contribute. Children at risk are tested during routine check-ups and treatment can prevent complications.

Plants both indoors and out can be poisonous. Most times the toxicity is mild and limited to the mouth, but some species of mushroom can be deadly and berries from some plants are very toxic. Birds and other animals may be able to eat things we cannot tolerate.

Perhaps you knew about drugs, household chemicals and plants, but there are other dangers at home. Did you know the residual nicotine in a cigarette butt can poison a small child? Nicotine poisoning may result from children chewing cigarette butts, or nicotine gum or patches. Button batteries are everywhere -- from hearing aids to flashlights and radios -- but if swallowed, they may leak strong chemicals, which can eat a hole through the intestinal wall.

To keep yourself and your family safe, consider these rules:

-- Post the national poison control number (800-222-1222) on or near every phone.

--Store medicines, personal care products and household chemicals in locked cabinets out of reach of children.

--Always store hazardous chemicals and medications in their original containers with labels.

-- Never mix household chemicals.

-- Wear protective clothing when the directions recommend it.

-- Be aware of medications houseguests bring in.

-- Do not call medicines candy.

-- Turn on a light before taking medication and follow directions on the label.

-- Have combustion appliances inspected annually.

-- If your house was built in the 1960s or before or if you are uncertain of the lead content of your interior paint, contact the National Lead Information Center (800-424-LEAD) for information.

If someone is exposed to a poison:

-- Remain calm, as there almost always is time as long as the person is conscious.

-- If the person exposed is not conscious or having difficulty breathing, call 911. Otherwise, call 800-222-1222 for instructions. Try to have the person's age and weight, the container of the poisonous product and the time since exposure available. Then follow the instructions given by the poison center.

Keep these simple rules in mind for your safety and that of your family. For more information on poisoning and what you can do about it, go to

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Last Updated March 19, 2009