What Is A Poison?

What is a poison?

A poison is a 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 poisons 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).
  • Almost anything can be poisonous or toxic, even usually benign substances such as water, It’s the dose that makes a substance poisonous.

The word “toxicology” refers to the study of all things poisonous. A “toxicologist” is a doctor who studies the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of poisonings. Many toxicologists work at poison control centers. The job of a poison control center is to provide advice, assistance, and education about poisonings to the public as well as to healthcare workers. In the United States (US), there are currently 55 poison centers that manage human poisonings. Poison center services are available for every state, as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. Since animals may respond to poisonings in different ways than humans do, there are also animal poison control centers that specialize in the treatment of non-human poisonings, although many human-focused poison control centers will help with less severe animal poisonings, too. 

How does poisoning occur?

In order to be affected by a poison, one must first have an exposure to a poison. An “exposure” means that someone has come into contact with something. You can be exposed to cold weather when you walk outside during the winter months. 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, 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, due to a lack of exposure. 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 from the bottle.

What makes a poison more dangerous?

An exposure occurs after contact with a poison. However, being exposed to a poison does not always result in harmful effects! The dose of a poison 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. Fentanyl is a very powerful opioid painkiller, and exposure to small amounts of fentanyl can be fatal to humans. The dietary supplement melatonin can cause toxic effects, but this generally occurs only after exposure to extremely large amounts of the product.

The timing 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-normal amount of a substance. Since 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:

Although the word “overdose” is often used interchangeably with the word “poisoning”, not all overdoses results in poisoning. Many 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 at poison.org or call 1-800-222-1222. 

Can my own medication be poisonous?

Medication is prescribed to help you, but if taken too frequently or in the wrong dose, a medication can also be poisonous. Double dosing occurs when an individual takes twice the amount of medication 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 questions about whether a double dosing exposure is safe, 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 think that over-the-counter medications are safe, many of them can be poisonous. 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. Visine drops 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. 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 do I do if someone has been exposed to something poisonous?

If you have a question about human poisoning, get help online at www.poison.org or call 1-800-222-1222. Both options are free for the public, and available 24 hours a day.

How can I prevent poisonings at home?

Poison prevention is very important! Since poison exposures are often unexpected, it’s best to have the webPOISONCONTROL app downloaded on your phone or bookmarked in your browser (www.poison.org), and the phone number for poison control (1-800-222-122 in the United States) saved as well. First aid treatments can be used for some poison exposures, especially insect bites and stings and eye and skin exposures. Although ipecac syrup was used for years as a treatment for swallowed poisons, it is no longer recommended. 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. 

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