It is important to take steps to prevent poisoning, which can cause very serious effects in children. Because their bodies are smaller and less developed than those of adults, children are especially susceptible to the effects of toxic substances.
Poisoning can affect many parts of the body, including the lungs, heart, central nervous system, gastrointestinal tract, and kidneys.
Most poisonings in children are unintentional and occur in the home. More than half of reported poisonings occur in children under age five. A child may become curious and ingest a toxic substance, inhale it, or absorb these substances through the skin.
There are many types of substances found in the home that can be toxic.
Medications account for about half of potentially toxic exposures. A child may ingest medications found in the home or a parent may unintentionally give a child more than the correct dose.
Exposure to either prescription or over-the-counter medications can be poisonous. Some common examples are pain medications, such as acetaminophen, aspirin, and narcotics called opioids. A child may also be exposed to psychiatric medications such as antidepressants, cardiovascular medications such as digoxin, and antihistamines such as diphenhydramine.
Not all of these medications are available in pill form. Some are available as adhesive patches that a child can stick onto the skin or put into the mouth and suck on. Many medications are available as liquids, while some medications, such as insulin, which is used to manage diabetes, are injected.
Household Products and Pesticides
Poisoning can occur from the ingestion or inhalation of household substances, such as bleach or toilet bowl cleaner, laundry detergent pods, pesticides or insecticides, glue, paint thinners and removers, and oven and drain cleaners.
Poisoning from these items can cause damage to a child’s gastrointestinal tract or airway. Some of these items can also burn the skin or eyes.
Dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, which is a colorless, odorless, and poisonous gas, may be emitted from fuel-burning appliances that aren’t working properly or aren’t properly vented. These include space heaters, furnaces, gas ranges and ovens, clothes dryers, gas water heaters, portable generators, wood-burning fireplaces and stoves, and automobiles.
Low concentrations of carbon monoxide can cause flu-like symptoms such as fatigue and nausea. Higher concentrations can cause difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness and heart damage.
Some indoor and outdoor plants contain toxins that can affect the stomach, heart, liver, respiratory system, or skin. These include daffodils, dumb cane, foxglove, hydrangea, lilies, oleanders, rhododendrons, and wisteria. Most common household indoor plants typically cause only mild gastrointestinal symptoms.
Alcohol, Nicotine, and Illicit Substances
Alcohol intoxication can affect children who drink alcoholic beverages, including wine, beer, and liquor. Alcohol can also be found in perfume, mouthwash, cleaning products, hand sanitizers, and over-the-counter cold medications. In children, alcohol poisoning can cause low blood sugar, which can lead to seizures and coma.
The liquid nicotine solution used in e-cigarettes can be poisonous if a child ingests it or if it comes in contact with the skin. Cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and nicotine gum can also be poisonous if ingested. Nicotine patches can be poisonous if a child ingests them or if they come in contact with the skin. It can cause nausea, vomiting, or seizures.
Poisoning from illicit substances can cause serious health consequences, including changes in alertness and responsiveness, slow or depressed breathing, unconsciousness, and seizures. These substances include cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, synthetic cannabinoids—known as synthetic marijuana, K2, or spice—and synthetic cathinones, known as bath salts.
Hydrocarbons include gasoline, kerosene, lamp oil, lighter fluid, paint thinners and removers, and motor oil. Young children may unintentionally ingest these fluids.
Exposure to these poisons can affect the respiratory and central nervous systems.
Items such as watches, calculators, remote controls, and toys may be battery-powered. Children may swallow small batteries, particularly flat “button” batteries. Batteries may contain alkaline chemicals that can leak or generate an electrical current, which can cause burns or holes in the esophagus.
Personal Care Products
Some personal care products, such as nail polish remover or perfume, can be poisonous if ingested. Exposure to these products may lead to symptoms including vomiting, drowsiness, or difficulty breathing.
Resources for Poisoning in Children
Discover Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital
We partner with children and families to provide the most advanced care.