Poisoning first aid

Poisoning caused by swallowing, injecting, breathing in, or otherwise being exposed to a poisonous substance.


Approximately 2.5 million poisonings are reported to U.S. poison control centers every year, with nearly 1,000 reported fatalities. The first aid you give before getting medical help can save a victim’s life. In a poisoning emergency, immediate first aid is critical.

It is important to note that the absence of a warning on a package label does not necessarily mean that the product is safe.

Suspect poisoning if someone suddenly becomes sick for no apparent reason.

Suspect inhalation poisoning if the victim is found near a furnace, a car, a fire, or in an area that is not well ventilated.

Symptoms of poisoning may take time to develop. However, if poisoning is suspected, do not wait for symptoms to develop before getting medical help.


Common Causes include:

  • Medicines (such as an aspirin overdose)  
  • Household detergents and cleaning products  
  • Carbon monoxide gas (from furnaces, gas engines, fires, space heaters)  
  • Household plants (eating toxic plants)  
  • Paints (swallowing or inhaling fumes)  
  • Insecticides  
  • Cosmetics (incorrectly used)  
  • Illicit drug overdose (accidental or intentional)  
  • Occupational chemical exposures  
  • Food poisoning (such as botulism)  
  • Animals (exposure to the toxic substances produced by some animals)


Symptoms vary according to the poison, but may include:

  • Abdominal pain  
  • Bluish lips  
  • Chest pain  
  • Confusion  
  • Cough  
  • diarrhea  
  • Difficulty breathing  
  • Dizziness  
  • Double vision  
  • Drowsiness  
  • Fever  
  • headache  
  • Heart palpitations  
  • Irritability  
  • Loss of appetite  
  • Loss of bladder control  
  • Muscle twitching  
  • nausea and Vomiting  
  • Numbness or tingling  
  • Seizures  
  • Shortness of breath  
  • Skin rash or burns  
  • Stupor  
  • Unconsciousness  
  • Unusual breath odor  
  • Weakness

First Aid


For poisoning by swallowing:

  1. Check and monitor the victim’s airway, breathing and circulation. If necessary, begin rescue breathing and CPR.
  2. Try to make sure that the victim has indeed been poisoned. It is not always obvious. Some signs include chemical-smelling breath, burns around the mouth, difficulty breathing, Vomiting, or unusual odors on the victim. If possible, identify the poison.
  3. Only induce Vomiting if the poison control center tells you to do so.
  4. If the victim vomits, protect the airway. If you must clear the victim’s airway, wrap a cloth around your fingers before cleaning out his or her mouth and throat. If the victim has vomited a plant part, save the vomitus as it may allow identification by an expert who can then determine an antidote.
  5. If the victim starts having Convulsions, protect him or her from injury and give convulsion first aid.
  6. Reassure the victim and keep him or her comfortable. Position the victim on their left side while getting or awaiting medical help. If the poison has spilled on the victim’s clothes, remove the clothing and flush the skin with water.

For inhalation poisoning:

  1. Call for emergency help. Never attempt to rescue a victim without notifying others first.
  2. If it is safe to do so, rescue the victim from the danger of the gas, fumes, or smoke. Hold a wet cloth over your nose and mouth. Open windows and doors to remove the fumes.
  3. Take several deep breaths of fresh air, then hold your breath as you go in.
  4. Avoid lighting a match as some gases may ignite.
  5. After rescuing the victim from danger, check his or her airway, breathing, and circulation. If necessary, perform rescue breathing and CPR.
  6. As necessary, perform first aid for skin burns, eye injuries (eye emergencies), or Convulsions.
  7. If the victim vomits, protect his or her airway.
  8. Even if the victim seems perfectly fine, get medical help.

Do Not

  • DO NOT give an unconscious victim anything by mouth.  
  • DO NOT induce Vomiting unless you are told to do so by the Poison Control Center or a doctor. A strong poison that burns on the way down the throat will also do damage on the way back up.  
  • DO NOT try to neutralize the poison with lemon juice or vinegar, or any other substance, unless you are told to do so by the Poison Control Center or a doctor.  
  • DO NOT use any “cure-all” type antidote.  
  • DO NOT wait for symptoms to develop if you suspect that someone has been poisoned.

Call immediately for emergency medical assistance if

If someone has been poisoned, you should call immediately for emergency medical assistance. Call your local Poison Control Center. See document on poison control centers for telephone numbers and addresses.


  • Be aware of poisons in and around your home. Take steps to protect young children from toxic substances. Store all medicines, cleaners, cosmetics, and household chemicals out of reach of children, or in cabinets with childproof latches.  
  • Be familiar with plants in your home, yard, and vicinity. Keep your children informed, too. Remove any noxious plants. Never eat wild plants, mushrooms, roots, or berries unless you know what you’re doing.  
  • Teach children about the dangers of substances that contain poison. Label all poisons.  
  • Don’t store household chemicals in food containers, even if they are labeled. Most non-food substances are poisonous if taken in large doses.  
  • If you are concerned that industrial poisons might be polluting nearby land or water, report your concerns to the local health department or the state or federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 5, 2012
by Potos A. Aagen, M.D.

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All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.