First-Aid: What is Poison? What to Do When Someone Has Swallowed Poison?

What is a poison ?

Anything which when taken into the body affects if adversely. Poisons can be tables taken in excess (of which the commonest are painkillers, sleeping tablets and iron tablets); fruits and plants (e.g., mushrooms and berries); chemicals (e.g., weed killers, domestic cleaning fluids and turpentine substitute (turps); bites (such as those from a snake); gases (like coal gas or industrial gases that are absorbed through the lungs); and agricultural pesticides that are absorbed through the skin.

It is usually obvious what sort of poisoning is involved, so we will look at them group by group.

Swallowed poisons

Usually a child. It is difficult to know how much was swallowed unless you know how full the container was in the first place.

1. Any swallowed poison must be treated seriously. Get medical help as soon as possible. Ask someone to telephone a doctor/ambulance or take the person to hospital by car or other means at once.

2. Always take the container along with you so that the doctor can identify the poison and so possibly remedy it quicker. Tell the ambulance people what has happened and ask their advice (where applicable).

3. Do not delay because children can go downhill very quickly even though they seem all right at first.

While awaiting medical help

1. Remove excess poison from the mouth, keeping pills, berries or containers for the doctor to see.

2. If the person is conscious, ask what he took. Do this quickly in case he lapses into unconsciousness rapidly.

3. If the person is unconscious, turn him into the recovery position so that he will not suffocate or vomit. Keep any vomit to show the doctor.

4. Because many poisons adversely affect breathing, keep a close watch on the person. Should he stop breathing, give artificial respiration.

5. If the person is conscious and has swallowed a corrosive substance, get him to drink water or milk to preserve the lining of the mouth (which can also be washed out) and to dilute the stomach contents. Remove any soaked clothing. You will know if the poison is corrosive by the chemical burning and white discolouration it leaves on the mouth, lips and clothes.

6. Never give anything by mouth to an unconscious person no matter what you think he has taken.

7. Never make a person vomit if he has taken anything containing petrol, turpentine substitute or anything corrosive such as strong acids and alkalies. The substance will already have done plenty of damage going down and can only do more on its way up. Give these people milk or water to drink as this helps protect the stomach lining and to some extent prevents absorption of the chemical.

8. Never give salt water to make the person vomit. If the person has taken poisons other than corrosives, thrust three fingers well down the back of his throat to make him vomit. Little children can be held upside down as this is done. The person may even be able to make himself sick like this.

9. Never try to make anyone vomit if he is unconscious. 10. Keep a close watch on the person until help arrives.

Some commonly swallowed poisons

Lavatory cleaners
Lighter fuel
Metal polishes
Methylated spirit
Nail varnish

Paint and paint strippers

Rat poisons
Turpentine substitute (turps)

All of these should be kept away from children. Although they rarely kill, they can cause many unpleasant effects and worry both child and parent.

After shave lotion
Animal medicines
Brake fluid
Carpet cleaning fluids
Caustic soda
Detergents (including bubble bath and washing-up liquid)
Fire lighters
Garden chemicals

Drugs are among the commonest causes of accidental poisoning in children. Aspirin, other painkillers, iron tablets, anti-depressants and sleeping pills are drugs which if taken in excess lead to serious :!lness or even death in children. Always keep medicines locked away out of the reach of children, preferably in a proper medicine Cabinet. Many medicines come in foil strips with each tablet sealed safely away from children. If you have loose tablets, buy child-resistant containers with screw tops that can be undone by adults but not by children.

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