What is a poison and what is Poison Control?

What is a poison?

Simply put, a poison is any substance that can cause harm to the body. In books and movies, poisons are often presented as strange and mysterious chemicals or products that, when consumed or inhaled, cause intense sickness or immediate death. In real life, most poisonings are actually much less dramatic, but can affect the human body in complicated ways. 

  • Poisons come in all different shapes, sizes, and forms.
  • Poisoning can be intentional (on purpose) or unintentional (accidental).
  • Poison exposure can be acute (a single event, short-term) or chronic (longer-term). 

Almost anything can be poisonous or toxic when used in the wrong way, wrong amount or dose, or by the wrong person. Even usually harmless substances like water can be poisonous in certain circumstances.

Toxicity refers to the ability of a substance to cause harm to the body. As was described by Paracelsus (1493-1541): “What is it that is not poison? All things are poison and nothing is without poison. It is the dose only that makes a thing not a poison.”

What is toxicology?

The word “toxicology” refers to the study of all things poisonous. A “toxicologist” is a scientist or clinician who studies the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of poisonings. Many toxicologists work at Poison Control centers.

What is “Poison Control”?

In the United States, “Poison Control” refers to the group of 55 accredited, independent Poison Control centers (also known as just “poison centers”) that answer the free Poison Control hotline, 1-800-222-1222. The hotline is answered all day, every day, year-round. When you dial up Poison Control, your call is directed to the poison center assigned to manage calls from your telephone number. The National Capital Poison Center serves the Washington, DC metro area. Poison Control centers employ specially-trained clinicians like doctors, nurses, and pharmacists who provide evidence and experience-based triage and first aid advice, poisoning prevention education to the public, training for future health care professionals, and serve as an important source of public health surveillance and outbreak detection. While poison centers receive some government funding, Poison Control is not a  regulatory nor government entity, and many centers struggle to maintain adequate funding.

Poison Control services are available for every state in the U.S., as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. There are also animal Poison Control centers that specialize in the treatment of non-human poisonings. Some human-focused Poison Control centers can help with less severe animal poisonings, too.

What is the difference between a poison, a toxin, and venom?

A poison is any substance that can cause harm to a living thing, but a toxin is a more specific kind of poison. A “toxin” is a poisonous substance produced by living cells or organisms.

For example,

  • Solanine and chaconine are two natural toxins found in green or sprouted potatoes.
  • Botulinum toxin A is made by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum.
  • Muscarine is a toxin made from Amanita muscaria mushrooms.
  • Some plants, such as milkweed (Asclepias genus), produce cardiac glycosides, which are toxic to humans. (link to plant page)
  • Some algae produce toxins that can poison people or animals when they swallow, swim in, or inhale the water or when they eat fish that live there.
  • Lionfish can contain a toxin known as ciguatera.
  • Blister beetles excrete a toxic blistering agent called cantharidin that can cause irritation and blistering when it comes in contact with the eyes, skin, mouth, throat, or digestive tract.

What is venom?

Venom is a poisonous substance made specifically by animals such as reptiles, spiders, insects, and some marine animals like lionfish and jellyfish. Venom is usually injected into other living things by biting or stinging. Brown recluse spiders, ants, coral snakes, jellyfish, black widow spiders, and copperhead snakes are just a few examples of venomous animals.

What’s the difference between venomous and poisonous?

The term venomous is used to describe living things that bite or sting to inject their toxins. The term poisonous is typically used to describe substances that can cause harm to the body when swallowed (ingested). However, a poison is really any substance that can cause harm to the body if ingested, breathed in (inhaled), injected into the body, or absorbed through the skin. While most poisonings are ingestions, Poison Control can assist with any poisoning or envenomation, regardless of the route of exposure.

How does poisoning happen?

In order to be affected by a poison, one must first be exposed. An “exposure” means that someone has come into contact with something. You can be exposed to poison ivy if you accidentally touch it and get it on your skin. You can also be exposed to a poison if you eat it, get it into your eye or on your skin, breathe it in, inject it, get stung or bitten by an insect or animal, or have bodily contact with it in some other way. Poison exposures can be intentional or unintentional.

Examples of poison exposures include:

  • A 2-year-old girl is found by a babysitter, chewing on a handful of Downy Unstopables.
  • A 37-year-old woman drinks a cup of Equate Hydrogen Peroxide 3% after mistaking it for a glass of water.
  • A 42-year-old man mixes Clorox bleach and Lysol Toilet Bowl Cleaner while cleaning his bathroom, and develops wheezing, coughing and difficulty breathing.
  • A suicidal teen takes an overdose of Tylenol and develops liver failure a few days later.
  • An 18-month-old boy is stung by a bee.
  • A 15-year-old girl is showing her Epi-Pen to her friends and injects herself in the thumb by accident.
  • A 70-year-old man inadvertently takes a double dose of his losartan blood pressure medicine.
  • A mom gives her toddler an adult dose of Olly Sleep Gummies with melatonin.

Sometimes, people may have close proximity to a poison without being exposed. In cases like this, poisoning will not occur. Examples of non-exposures include:

  • A family lives across the street from a house where a carbon monoxide leak occurred.
  • A 1-year-old boy is found playing with a bottle of Unisom SleepMinis belonging to his mother. The cap is on the pill bottle, and the mother confirms that no pills are missing.

What makes a poison dangerous?

An exposure occurs after contact with a poison. However, being exposed to a poison does not always result in harmful effects. The amount of poison you are exposed to is responsible for its effects on the human body. Some things are poisonous in small amounts, while others are only poisonous after exposure to larger amounts. For example, fentanyl is a very powerful opioid painkiller, and injection or ingestion of small amounts of fentanyl can be fatal to humans. Unlike fentanyl, the dietary supplement melatonin can cause toxic effects, but this generally occurs only after exposure to extremely large amounts.

The duration of an exposure also affects its ability to be poisonous. Exposures can be acute or chronic in nature. An acute exposure generally occurs over a very short time period, for example, minutes to hours. Examples of acute exposures include:

  • A 6-year-old boy swallows a teaspoon of Vicks VapoSteam while watching television.
  • A 47-year-old woman accidentally splashes Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Special Shampoo in her eye while taking a shower.
  • A 25-year-old man sets off a Raid Max Deep Reach Fogger in the home and does not leave the area immediately, resulting in breathing in the pesticide for a few minutes.
  • A 3-year-old girl is playing with a Gain Flings! and it bursts onto her skin.

Chronic exposures occur over longer periods of time, often weeks to months to years. Examples of chronic exposures include:

  • A 56-year-old man is exposed to gasoline fumes for 15 years at his job as a gas station attendant.
  • A 42-year-old woman discovers that her home, which she has lived in for 10 years, has high radon levels present.
  • A 17-year-old boy inhales Krylon Colormax Spray Paint every day for 1 month to get high. 

What is an overdose?

An overdose occurs when an individual is exposed to a higher-than-recommended amount of a substance. Not all overdoses are poisonings, but because dosing is an important factor in determining whether an exposure to a substance may result in poisoning, it is important to remember that overdosing on a substance can often result in poisoning.

Examples of overdoses are:

  • A 19-year-old man intentionally swallows 16 Percocet pills.
  • A 21-year-old man takes 10 Excedrin Migraine caplets to treat a severe headache.
  • A 7-year-old girl eats ¼ cup of salt on a dare from a classmate.
  • An 18-year-old college student drinks 7 servings of 5-Hour Energy drinks.

Although the word “overdose” is often used interchangeably with the word “poisoning,” not all overdoses result in poisoning. Many (but not all) naturally occurring herbal products such as coriander, dill, marigold, Stevia, and Chia, are minimally toxic. These products, which are often listed as “Generally Recognized as Safe” or “GRAS” by the United States Food and Drug Administration, are not known to cause significant toxicity, even in overdose. For questions about whether a substance is minimally toxic or potentially dangerous in overdose, get help online or call 1-800-222-1222.

Can my medication be poisonous?

Medication is prescribed to help you, but if taken too frequently or in the wrong dose, or by the wrong person, a medication can also be poisonous. Double dosing occurs when an individual takes twice the amount of medication than they are supposed to take. Double dosing is a common example of a “therapeutic error” that occurs when a medication is taken incorrectly. While double dosing may be safe for some medications, some medications may be very dangerous when taken in double dose. For guidance about what to do if you have taken a double dose, get help online or call 1-800-222-1222.

Both prescription and over-the-counter medications can be dangerous when taken in incorrect amounts or by the wrong route of exposure. Although many people assume that over-the-counter medications are safe, many of them can be poisonous. For example, diphenhydramine, also known as Benadryl or Unisom, is often used for treatment of itching, rashes, and pain caused by allergic reactions as well as insect bites and stings. Even when used correctly, diphenhydramine can cause sleepiness as a side effect. Excessive sleepiness can occur if more than the recommended dose is taken. Another example is eye drops like Visine, which are frequently used to treat red eyes. When used as an eye drop, Visine is generally safe. However, if eye drops are swallowed, they can cause sleepiness, low blood pressure, and a low heart rate. To avoid being poisoned by prescription or over-the-counter drugs, always use medications according to the directions on the package.

Can natural products be poisonous?

We often think of natural products as being safe or good for us, but natural products can also be poisonous. An example of a poisonous natural product is arsenic. Arsenic is an element that is naturally found in the environment in rocks and soil. Because it is naturally present in our environment, humans can be exposed to arsenic by drinking well water or breathing air. If you live in a larger city or urban area, you are probably exposed to arsenic (and other heavy metals and pollutants) in the air you breathe every day. Plants are natural also, but some plant species can be very poisonous. For example, the autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) plant is a flowering plant that grows naturally in North America. This plant is extremely poisonous. Even a taste of the plant can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and other severe symptoms in adults, children, and pets.

What is an antidote?

An antidote is a medicine or remedy to counteract the effects of a particular poison. For example, naloxone (Narcan) is a medicine that is an antidote to opioid drugs.

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning, also known as foodborne illness, is sickness caused by eating food contaminated with infectious organisms like bacteria, viruses, or parasites, or toxins in food. Signs and symptoms of food poisoning can start within hours after eating the contaminated food, but depending on the type of food poisoning, they may begin days or even up to two weeks later. Illness caused by food poisoning generally lasts from a few hours to several days. Click here for more information about food poisoning and how to prevent it

How can I prevent poisonings at home?

Poisoning prevention is very important! Since poison exposures are often unexpected and unintentional, it’s best to have the webPOISONCONTROL app on your phone or bookmarked in your browser (www.poison.org), and the phone number for Poison Control (1-800-222-1222 in the United States) saved as well. The app is downloadable on the App Store or Google Play. Since children are often the victims of unintentional poison exposures, always keep household items (including cleaning products, soaps, detergents, pesticides, and medications) out of their reach. If you live in the Washington DC metro area, you can order a magnet for your fridge or a sticker for your phone here.

First Aid for Poisoning

There are some first aid measures for poisonings that make a difference if done within seconds to minutes of a poison exposure. Be familiar with the steps below for ingested poisons, poisons in the eye (ocular exposures), on the skin (dermal exposures), or inhaled (breathed in). Call 911 right away if the individual collapses, has a seizure, has trouble breathing, or can’t be awakened.

For ingested or swallowed poisons, drink a small amount of water or milk immediately if:

  • The product swallowed is burning, irritating or caustic, AND
  • The person is awake and alert, not having convulsions, and able to swallow.

Then, get help from Poison Control. There are 2 ways to get help:

  • Call 1-800-222-1222, OR
  • Use webPOISONCONTROL to get specific recommendations for your case online.

Tips for what to do if a potential poison gets in your eyes, on your skin, or if you breathe it in can be found here and here.

Never make someone who may have swallowed a poison vomit. Although ipecac syrup was used for years as a treatment for swallowed poisons, it is no longer recommended.

What do I do if someone has been exposed to something poisonous?

If you suspect someone has been exposed to a poison, act fast. Don’t wait until symptoms develop. Get help online or call 1-800-222-1222. Both options are free for the public, and available 24 hours a day.         

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