5 commonly ingested poisons in your home and how to treat them

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According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, around 10,800 Aussies are hospitalised due to accidental poisoning each year, resulting in 1,500 deaths. Sadly, children aged up to four had the highest rate of accidental poisoning.

These figures aren't surprising, as many homes contain everyday products that are potentially toxic. And when these substances aren’t stored properly, accidental poisonings can occur.

We want to make you aware of these substances and the preventative measures you can take to reduce the risk of accidental poisoning in your home. Our list includes some of the most common household poisons, but there are dozens of everyday products that can be toxic to your family and pets.

If you ever suspect human poisoning, immediately call the Poisons Information Centre helpline at 13 11 26. If someone stops breathing, collapses, has a seizure or serious allergic reaction, call 000 immediately.

Remember carbon monoxide detectors

We recommend installing carbon monoxide detectors as part of your overall home safety plan to prevent poisoning. (Carbon monoxide is a colourless, odourless, and poisonous gas that claims over 250 Australian lives a year.)

Who is at risk of accidental poisoning?

Everyone is at risk of accidental poisoning, but some age groups experience greater incidents of poisoning than others.

Children four years old or younger experience the highest rate of accidental poisonings at just under 1 in 1,000. The next highest age group is people aged 65 and over at around 1 in 2,000.

Peak poisoning frequency occurs in children under two, but poisonings in adults and teens tend to be more serious.

Securely store these, and all other potentially poisonous household products, to help poison-proof your home. 

1. Medication

Harmful exposure to pharmaceutical drugs accounted for 83% of all accidental poisoning hospitalisations in Australia between 2019 and 2020.

That number includes basic pain management medication such as paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like ibuprofen) which contributed to about 11% of drug-related poisoning cases.

Prevention: Keep all medication out of the reach of children and anyone else who may accidentally ingest it. Install high-quality baby-proofing cabinet locks on any cabinet that contains medication. Keep medication in its original container, always take medicine according to instructions, and never use someone else’s prescription medication. Download a medicine manager app to help remind you how much to take and when to take it.

Symptoms: Symptoms of prescription painkiller overdose range from confusion, mood swings, and nausea to breathing problems that can result in death. There are many NSAID overdose symptoms, including abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and blurred vision. Large amounts of NSAIDs may result in kidney damage, seizures, or coma.

Treatment: Call the Poisons Information Centre number above or seek emergency care immediately. If possible, provide medical personnel with the victim’s age, weight, and condition, as well as the name of the medication, time it was swallowed, and amount consumed.

2. Household cleaners

It’s not uncommon for cleaning products to contain a range of hazardous chemicals. For example, many toilet bowl cleaners and tub and tile cleaners contain hydrochloric acid, while sodium hydroxide (lye) can be found in drain cleaners and oven cleaners. Often, these products aren’t handled and stored appropriately, which leads to them being one of the top causes of accidental poisoning in children. Inhaling certain cleaning products can also result in poisoning.

Prevention: Always use household cleaning products according to directions and put them away immediately after use. Store products where they can’t be accessed by children or pets—like on the top shelf of the pantry or in a child-proofed cabinet. For added safety, switch to natural cleaning products that are toxic, such as ditch3 eco-friendly multi-purpose cleaner.

Symptoms: Poisoning symptoms vary depending on what cleaning product was ingested. For example, swallowing toilet bowl cleaner can cause burns in the oesophagus, difficulty breathing, and loss of vision. Symptoms of drain cleaner poisoning include burns in the mouth, difficulty breathing, vomiting, and severe stomach pain.

Treatment: If the victim swallowed either of these cleaning products, have them drink water or milk immediately—unless they’re having difficulty swallowing. Then call the Poisons Information Centre number or seek medical treatment right away.

3. Topical anaesthetics

Topical anaesthetics contain numbing ingredients to help reduce discomfort from things like sunburn, sore muscles, and insect bites. When applied according to package instructions, topical anaesthetics are usually safe. But using more than the recommended amount or ingesting even a small amount of topical anaesthetic can lead to poisoning.

Prevention: Treat topical anaesthetics just like prescription medication or any other medicine. Store your first aid kits in a safe place, follow label instructions carefully, and put them back immediately after use. Also, never apply teething gel to children younger than two years of age. Instead, massage their gums or use teething rings to help ease pain.

Symptoms: Poisoning symptoms may include laboured breathing, slow heartbeat, drowsiness, and seizures. Benzocaine is an ingredient often found in teething gels that can cause methemoglobinemia, a serious condition in which the amount of oxygen in the blood becomes dangerously low. Symptoms of methemoglobinemia include headache, fast heart rate, and bluish colouring of the skin or nails.

Treatment: If you suspect topical anaesthetic poisoning, seek professional medical care immediately or call the Poison Information Centre helpline.

4. Insecticides

The purpose of insecticides is to kill bugs such as ants, roaches, and wasps—but the chemicals used to rid your home of these pests can also be dangerous to your family. Organophosphates and carbamates are two common insecticide types that are associated with serious poisonings. Insecticide poisoning can result from swallowing, inhaling, or absorbing through the skin.

Prevention: Store insecticides in their original containers, locked out of sight and reach of children and pets. Use the least amount of insecticide possible and avoid using them in enclosed spaces. Switch to insecticides that use pyrethrum, as they are made from flowers and aren’t as poisonous to humans and pets.

Symptoms: Organophosphate and carbamate poisoning can cause a variety of symptoms, including blurred vision, salivation, vomiting, and seizures. Additionally, these products can overstimulate organs and result in them shutting down.

Treatment: In cases of ingestion, do not have the victim throw up. Seek medical treatment right away. Medical professionals may use the drug atropine to treat serious insecticide poisonings. If the insecticide came in contact with the victim’s clothing or skin, they should remove their clothes and wash their body immediately.

5. Dishwasher and laundry detergent

Swallowing liquid or granular dishwasher or laundry detergent can be dangerous, but detergent pods present a greater risk of serious poisoning.

Prevention: Young children and pets can easily mistake brightly coloured and pleasantly fragrant detergent pods for lollies. So keep pods in their original container with the lid sealed and store them in a secure location. Better yet, avoid pods altogether and use a liquid or granular product.

Symptoms: Swallowing liquid or granular dishwasher or laundry detergent can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Ingesting a detergent pod can result in symptoms ranging from vomiting and drowsiness to aspiration and respiratory distress.

Treatment: Call the Poisons Information Centre helpline or seek other medical help immediately. Do not make the victim throw up unless a medical professional advises you to.

Alexia Chianis
Written by
Alexia Chianis

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