Poisoning results from any substance, including medications, that is harmful to your body if too much is eaten, inhaled, injected, or absorbed through the skin.

Madeline's Story

Madeline is the mother of a two-year-old boy named Sean. As a normal two-year-old, Sean is curious about his environment and gets into everything. Madeline and her husband have done everything they can think of to childproof their home to protect Sean. They have installed safety locks on cabinets in the house and the garage. They try to store harmful things in safe places out of Sean's reach.

What Is Poisoning?

A poison is any substance that is harmful to the body. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, everyday products and medications can be harmful if they are used in the wrong way, in the wrong amount, or by the wrong person. Poisoning can be accidental or intentional. Poisoning can occur by ingesting (eating or drinking), inhaling (breathing), injecting (needle or insect stinger), or coming into direct contact (absorbing it through the skin) with a harmful substance.

How Common Is Poisoning?

In the United States, death from poisoning has became the leading cause of injury-related death. More deaths occur from poisoning each year than from automobile accidents. Most poisoning deaths are related to drugs; overdoses are more likely to involve prescription drugs. The highest rates of poisoning are observed in individuals between the ages of 18 and 20 years. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), 3.1 million calls were received by the nation's 55 poison control centers in 2013. Of those calls, 2.2 million were calls about exposure to poisons including inhalation of carbon monoxide, eating contaminated food, and being bitten by snakes. The remaining calls were requesting information.

Common household, industrial, and agricultural products containing toxic substances

Common household, industrial, and agricultural products containing toxic substances
Table by PreMediaGlobal. © 2016 Cengage Learning®

What Are the Causes of Poisoning?

It is important to note that most products are safe if used according to the printed directions on the label. Products that contain harmful chemicals are required to print that information on the label. Most poisonings are accidental. Poisoning can occur by ingesting (eating or drinking), inhaling (breathing in), or injecting a harmful substance. Poisoning can also occur by absorbing a harmful substance through the skin. Some examples of the various types of products that can be harmful (poisonous) if not used according to product directions are as follows.


Eating products that are not intended to be eaten can be harmful. Eating foods that are contaminated with harmful substances or bacteria * can also be harmful.


Inhaling products that are not intended to be inhaled can be harmful.


Injecting substances that were not intended to be injected in a person can be harmful. Accidental bites from snakes or insects (such as wasps and bees) can be harmful.


Drugs.com provides a pill identifier website that helps identify a specific medication by color, shape, and markings.


Being exposed to aerosol products or sprays may require special precautions to prevent absorption. When precautions are not followed, they can be harmful.

Who Is at Risk for Poisoning?

Children are at highest risk for poisoning. The AAPCC reports that children younger than six years of age accounted for half of all poison exposure calls made to the Poison Control Centers in 2013. Adults are at highest risk of dying as a result of poisoning. AAPCC reports that adults accounted for 92 percent of all poison-related deaths reported to poison centers. Most poisoning exposures in children are unintentional while intentional substance use or abuse is the cause of most poisoning episodes in adults. Most poisoning, over 90 percent, occurs in the home environment. Poisonings in children are likely to occur from ingestion of substances such as cosmetics and other personal care products, household cleaning products, and medications.

What Are the Signs of Poisoning?

Signs of poisoning vary depending on the substance and how it has entered the body, whether the substance was ingested, inhaled, injected, or absorbed. Sometimes the only indicator of possible poisoning is the report of the person who was exposed or of a person who observed the exposure.

Some signs that may indicate exposure to a toxic substance are changes in behavior, confusion, changes in level of awareness or consciousness, becoming sleepy, skin rash or swelling, swelling of the throat or mucous membranes, changes in skin color (bright red is associated with carbon monoxide poisoning, blue is associated with inadequate oxygen supply), difficulty breathing, nausea, and vomiting.

How Is Poisoning Diagnosed and Treated?


General signs and symptoms of insecticide poisoning

General signs and symptoms of insecticide poisoning
SOURCE: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Recognition and Management of Pesticide Poisoning, “Index of Signs and Symptoms.” Available online at: http://www.epa.gov/oppfead1/safety/healthcare/handbook/handbook.htm (accessed September 8, 2015). Table by PreMediaGlobal. © 2016 Cengage Learning®.

When the substance is a medication, the medication container should have the name of the medication, the dosage, and the names of the prescribing healthcare provider and dispensing pharmacy on the label. If the medication label is not available, medications can often be identified by the color, shape, and markings on the pill or capsule.

Did You Know?

Always take the poison container to the emergency room along with the person who has been poisoned.

Laboratory examination of blood samples and urine may be done to determine what the substance is. For example, if the substance inhaled is the illegal drug cocaine, it may be found in the blood or urine. Laboratory examination of blood samples and urine may also be done to determine what effect the substance has had on the body. For example, the poison may change the normal composition of the blood. Having this knowledge helps the healthcare provider decide on the treatment plan.


The treatment for poisoning focuses on supporting the person's vital functions (for example, heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, temperature), preventing additional absorption of the harmful substance, increasing elimination of the substance from the body, and giving any specific antidotes. Antidotes are substances that can eliminate (get rid of), deactivate (make inactive), or counteract (neutralize or reduce) the effects of the poison.

Eliminating the poison from the body may be done in several ways. Treatment to eliminate poisons from the body varies with the specific substance. Caution must be taken to prevent the person from aspirating (the poison gets into the upper respiratory tract) the poison if he or she is vomiting.

Can Poisoning Be Prevented?

There are many ways that poisoning can be prevented.

DO …
Poison Hotline

Keep the Poison Control Center hotline number in a prominent place.



See also Addiction • Bites and Stings • Carbon Monoxide Poisoning • Consciousness • Emergency Resuscitation (CPR) • Food Poisoning • Lead Poisoning • Mercury Poisoning • Mushroom Poisoning • Stupor and Coma • Substance Abuse


Books and Articles

Klaassen, Curtis. Casarett & Doull's Toxicology: The Basic Science of Poisons, 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2013.

Olson, Kent R. Poisoning & Drug Overdose, Sixth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2011.


Drugs.com . “Pill Identifier.” http://www.drugs.com/pill_identification.html (accessed April 5, 2016).

MedlinePlus. “Poisoning.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/poisoning.html (accessed April 5, 2016).

Merck Manual: Consumer Version. “Overview of Poisoning.” http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/injuries-and-poisoning/poisoning/overview-of-poisoning (accessed April 5, 2016).

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Household Products Database.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. http://householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov (accessed March 5, 2016).

U.S. Department of Health and Human Servicess. “Poison Help 1-800-222-1222.” http://poisonhelp.hrsa.gov (accessed April 5, 2016).


American Association of Poison Control Centers. 515 King St., Suite 510, Alexandria, VA 22314. Telephone: 703-894-1858. Website: http://www.aapcc.org (accessed April 5, 2016).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1600 Clifton Rd., Atlanta, GA 30329-4027. Toll-free: 800-232-4636. Website: http://www.cdc.gov (accessed April 5, 2016).

Consumer Product Safety Commission. 4330 East West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814. Toll-free: 800-638-2772. Website: http://www.cpsc.gov (accessed April 5, 2016).

* bacteria (bak-TEER-ee-a) are single-celled microorganisms that typically reproduce by cell division. Some, but not all, types of bacteria can cause disease in humans. Many types can live in the body without causing harm.

* barbiturates (bar-BI-chur-ate) are drugs that depress the central nervous system, causing mild sedation to total anesthesia.

* amphetamines (am-FET-ameenz) are drugs that produce a temporary feeling of alertness, energy, and euphoria (good feeling).

* narcotic (nar-KO-tik) is a drug that depresses the central nervous system, causing stupor or sleep.

* herbicide (erb-IH-side) is a substance that is toxic or poisonous to plants. Herbicides are sold commercially to destroy unwanted plants and vegetation.

* carbon monoxide (KCAR-bon mon-OK-side) is a colorless, odorless gas that is toxic to the body and can cause fire.

* cocaine (ko-KAYN) is a drug that produces a temporary feeling of alertness, energy, and euphoria.

* pesticide (PEST-ih-side) is a substance used to kill insects or other organisms harmful to plants or animals.

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

(MLA 8th Edition)