What's a "Poison Exposure"?
Toxicologists use the term "poison exposure" instead of "poisoning" to refer to an incident involving a person who swallows or comes in contact with a substance that might be poisonous. Contact could be swallowing, splashed in the eyes or on the skin, breathed in, or injected. Often the substance isn't as toxic as one initially thinks it might be, or the amount taken is so low that no bad effect is expected. Since symptoms may not develop, technically these exposures can't be called "poisonings".
In the U.S., there are two ways to get help for a poison emergency. You can either:
- Call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 for expert guidance, or
- For unintentionally swallowed substances with no symptoms, you can use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool to get specific recommendations for your case, based on your age, weight, substance and amount taken.
Both options are free and confidential. Both options give you expert answers.
When can I use the webPOISONCONTROL tool?
If you took too much of a medicine or swallowed something that might be poisonous, webPOISONCONTROL can help you decide if it's safe to stay home, or if a call to Poison Control or visit to an emergency room is required. Use webPOISONCONTROL
if the exposed person meets all these criteria:
In August 2016, The American Journal of Emergency Medicine published an article titled "webPOISONCONTROL: can poison control be automated?" The article analyzed the first 9,256 webPOISONCONTROL cases. The study found the app is safe, quick and easy to use.
- Asymptomatic. If symptoms from the poison exposure have already developed, call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 immediately. If the individual collapses, has a seizure, has trouble breathing or can't be awakened, call 911 right away.
- Swallowed substance. Routes other than swallowing aren't addressed by the webPOISONCONTROL tool, so call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 for help with an inhalation, injection, or an exposure to the eyes, skin, nose or ear.
- Drugs or medicines (including both over-the-counter and prescription meds), household products, or berries. If the situation involves a flower, leaf, mushroom, coin, or food poisoning, call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 instead of using this tool. But we're adding products daily, so check back the next time you need Poison Control help.
- Single substances (only one product) swallowed. The drug or product can have multiple ingredients, but webPOISONCONTROL can't handle multiple drugs or products until we develop the logic for interactions and additive effects.
- Taken once. This tool is designed for one-time acute poison exposures that occur over a short period of time (minutes to a few hours). If you take the medication regularly or if you were exposed chronically or repeatedly, call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 for assistance.
- Unintentional. No self-harm or suicide attempts. When self-harm is involved, immediate evaluation by a healthcare provider, usually in an ER, is always advised.
- Age 6 months to 79 years. The tool doesn't include the logic required to handle the special issues that arise in the very young or in older adults.
- Not pregnant! We haven't addressed risks to the fetus or the pregnant mom.
- Otherwise healthy. If you have a serious pre-existing medical condition, don't use this tool. Call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 instead to make sure there are no special considerations for your disease.
- Human. Don't use this tool for your pets! Toxicity differs between species.
When can't I use the webPOISONCONTROL tool?
Don't use this tool if you (or the exposed person) are:
- Already having symptoms from a poison exposure
- Got a substance in the eye, on the skin, in the ear, in the nose, or inhaled or injected it. This tool is only for substances taken by mouth.
- Suicidal or intending self-harm
- Younger than 6 months or older than 79 years
- A pet
- Swallowed multiple products
- Swallowed a medication repeatedly over more than a few hours (for example, you take this medication regularly).
- Swallowed a flower, leaf, mushroom, bad food or a coin (stay-tuned, more products are coming soon!)
When should I call Poison Control instead of using the webPOISONCONTROL tool?
If this tool doesn't address your problem, or if you'd rather talk to a real person, don't hesitate to call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 for immediate and expert assistance (U.S. only). If you're already in a panic, there's no substitute for the calming voice of a specialist. So don't hesitate to pick up the phone and call Poison Control when you need help. A friendly expert is ready for your call, 24/7. And your call is free and confidential.
How long does it take to enter my case and get a recommendation?
It usually takes 2-4 minutes. It could take a bit longer if you don't know the age or weight of the exposed person, the name of the product, or the amount that was swallowed.
Is there a charge?
Use of the webPOISONCONTROL
tool is free. Download it to your smart phone, too. On your smart phone you can scan the barcode of a product that was swallowed to make it faster to determine the specific substance.
What information will I need to provide?
tool determines how dangerous an exposure is based on the information you give us. You'll be asked to provide the following:
- Substance (Product name and strength if it is a medication)
- Amount swallowed
- Time since exposure
- Zip code
Why am I asked for a zip code and email address?
We ask for your zip code so we can get your case to the right local poison center in case more help is needed. Your poison center can assist you more quickly if their experts already have a summary of your case.
We use your email address to follow-up with you and make sure that everything is OK. Based on the substance and time since the exposure, we'll tell you when you should expect emails from us, and these are usually limited to the first day or two after the exposure occurred. Once you are beyond the point of any risk from the substance, based on what we know about the timing of effects from that substance, we'll stop sending emails. We promise!
You will never be required to enter your name or mailing address, but if we refer you to a hospital, we'll give you a chance to give us your name and the name of the hospital so your poison center can assist the doctors with your care.
How is my case summary and personal information used?
What if I am unsure of the product … the amount … or something else?
We try to help you through the assessment process by providing you with pictures of the product, helping you narrow down unknown weights or amounts, displaying a summary of what you told us, and asking additional questions when you are unsure how to respond.
- If you aren't sure of the amount but can provide a reasonable estimate, always estimate high to be safe.
- If you aren't sure of the weight of the exposed person but can provide a reasonable estimate, always estimate low to be safe. Of course, if you have a scale, use it!
In some cases it may be easier to call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 (U.S. only).
How do I order poison prevention stickers, magnets, or other materials?
Most U.S. poison centers provide free phone stickers, refrigerator magnets, and poison prevention brochures and posters, but provide them only for residents of their designated service area. Call 1-800-222-1222 to reach your poison center and ask for instructions on ordering materials in your state. Call during normal business hours. If you live in the DC metro area, you can order materials through this website.