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Straight, No Chaser: First Steps to Take If Someone Gets Poisoned

By Jeffrey Sterling, MD November 14, 2018

poison first aid

How would you respond if you or someone in your home became a victim of an accidental poisoning? What if you stumbled across a family member who intentionally swallowed a bunch of pills? Would you know what to do or who to call? As part of Patient Safety Awareness Week and National Poison Prevention Week, this Straight, No Chaser addresses very basic first steps you should take in a poisoning emergency.
In a prior post, we addressed items you should have in your medicine cabinet. For this conversation, lets focus on two of those things: activated charcoal, which can be used to absorb certain poisons from your digestive system, and the number to the Poison Help line. Let’s just consider these two things as things it’s more important to have and not need than to need and not have. These two items generally are involved in the answers to immediate questions you will face.

QuickSign_S1111

What should you do if someone has ingested a poison?
If there are any signs of mental status changes or other life threatening considerations, you have a decision to make: is your quickest path to the local emergency room (not urgent care) your car or an ambulance? I generally suggest if you can get to an emergency room in the time it will take an ambulance to arrive to your home, then do so. If that’s not the case, the additional care you will receive when the ambulance arrives will make calling the ambulance a better decision. Once that choice has been made, then call the Poison Help line at 800-222-1222. No matter where you are within the U.S., you will be routed to your local poison center. At that point, you will be in the hands of professionals and instructed appropriately on additional next steps.
What should you do if someone has poison in the eyes?
Regardless of the source, you should rinse the eyes with running water for approximately 15-20 minutes, and while doing this, have someone call an ambulance or the Poison Help line as discussed above (800-222-1222).

poison-line

What should you do if someone has poison on the skin?
Before you help such a person, if at all possible, put on gloves to prevent yourself from becoming contaminated. Remove any clothing that has been touched by the person. Rinse the skin with running water for approximately 15-20 minutes, and while doing this, have someone call an ambulance or the Poison Help line as discussed above (800-222-1222).

activated charcoal

If someone has been poisoned, should I give activated charcoal as a preventive step?
Activated charcoal is very good in certain situations, but it is not a cure-all. The time you’d be spending attempting to swallow it would be better spent talking with paramedics or the poison helpline team. Once you’ve discussed the specifics of the poison, the decision may be made to give the activated charcoal prior to arrival by the ambulance or prior to arrival at the emergency room. Certainly if someone has blacked out, you don’t want to try to shove activated charcoal down someone’s throat. The risk of this black, gooey substance going down the wrong tube and ending up in the lungs isn’t a risk worth taking in a person having difficulty with consciousness. Don’t worry, there’s likely time for activated charcoal to work well when it’s indicated. You should just be sure in advance.
Again, remember the Poison Help line number is 800-222-1222, and protect your home environment. Don’t make it easy for toddlers, teens and those with suicidal inclinations to have access to potentially deadly medicines.
Feel free to ask your SMA expert consultant any questions you may have on this topic.
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