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Poisoning - What to do if someone has been poisoned

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Being poisoned can be life threatening. If someone has swallowed a poisonous substance, do not try to treat them yourself. Seek medical help immediately.

If they are showing signs of being seriously ill, call 999 for an ambulance or take them to your local A&E department.

Symptoms associated with serious poisoning include:

  • being sick
  • dizziness
  • sudden, noticeable heartbeats (palpitations)
  • breathing difficulties
  • uncontrollable restlessness or agitation
  • seizures (fits)
  • drowsiness or loss of consciousness

If a person does not appear to be seriously ill, call NHS 111 for advice.

Helping someone who is conscious

If you think someone has been seriously poisoned and they are still conscious, ask them to sit still and stay with them while you wait for medical help to arrive.

If they have been poisoned by swallowing something, try to get them to spit out anything remaining in their mouth.

If a harmful substance has splashed onto their skin or clothes, remove any contaminated items and wash the affected area thoroughly with warm or cool water. 

Helping someone who is unconscious

If you think someone has swallowed poison and they appear to be unconscious, try to wake them and encourage them to spit out anything left in their mouth. Do not put your hand into their mouth and do not try to make them sick.

While you are waiting for medical help to arrive, lie the person on their side with a cushion behind their back and their upper leg pulled slightly forward, so they do not fall on their face or roll backwards. This is known as the recovery position.

Wipe any vomit away from their mouth and keep their head pointing down to allow any vomit to escape without them breathing it in or swallowing it. Do not give them anything to eat or drink.

If the person is not breathing or their heart has stopped, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if you know how to (read more about how to perform CPR).

Poisonous fumes

If you think someone has inhaled poisonous fumes, assess the situation first and do not put yourself in danger.

If the person you think may have inhaled poisonous fumes is conscious, you should try to encourage them to make their way out of the contaminated area if at all possible. Once they are out into fresh air, check to see if they are OK and call 999 if they have signs of serious poisoning (see above).

If the person is unconscious or for any reason unable to get out the affected area, call 999 immediately. You should not enter any enclosed areas to remove the person yourself because toxic gases and fumes can be very dangerous if inhaled.

How to help medical staff

Medical staff will need to take a detailed history to effectively treat a person who has been poisoned. When the paramedics arrive or when you arrive at A&E, give them as much information as you can, including:

  • What substances you think the person may have swallowed.
  • When the substance was taken (how long ago).
  • Why the substance was taken - whether it was an accident or deliberate.
  • How it was taken (for example, swallowed or inhaled).
  • How much was taken (if you know).

Give details of any symptoms the person has had, such as whether they have been sick. If they have been sick, collect a sample of their vomit as it may help medical staff to identify the poison.

Medical staff may also want to know:

  • The person's age and estimated weight.
  • Whether they have any existing medical conditions.
  • Whether they are taking any medication (if you know).

If possible, give medical staff the container that the substance came in to give them a clear idea of what it is. If you do not know what caused the poisoning, blood tests may be needed to identify the cause.

Hospital treatment

Some people who have swallowed a poisonous substance or overdosed on medication will be admitted to hospital for examination and treatment.

Possible treatments that can be used to treat poisoning include:

  • Activated charcoal - healthcare professionals sometimes use a substance called activated charcoal to treat someone who has been poisoned. The charcoal binds to the poison and stops it from being further absorbed into the blood.
  • Antidotes - these are substances that either prevent the poison from working or reverse the effects of the poison.
  • Sedatives - these may be given if the person is agitated.
  • A ventilator (breathing machine) - this may be used if the person stops breathing.
  • Anti-epileptic medicine - this may be used if the person has seizures.

Tests and investigations

Investigations may include blood tests and an electrocardiogram.

A blood test can be used to check the levels of chemicals and glucose in a person's blood. They may be used to perform a toxicology screen (tests to determine how many drugs or medication a person has taken) and a liver function test (which indicates how damaged the liver is).

Go to the Lab Tests Online website for more information on liver function tests.

An electrocardiogram (ECG) is an electrical recording of the heart to check that it is functioning properly.

Medical Review: August 21, 2013
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