Overview of Poisoning

Poisons are substances that are harmful when they get into the body. Poisons also are called toxins, toxic substances, or hazardous substances. Poisoning occurs when a toxin is swallowed (ingested), breathed in (inhaled), absorbed or injected into the skin, or gets into the eyes.

Poisoning can be a medical emergency. Call the Poison Control Center at 1.800.222.1222 (in the United States) immediately, if you suspect your child or someone else may have been poisoned.

In most cases, poisoning

  • occurs in the home,
  • is acute (i.e., develops suddenly),
  • is unintentional (accidental), and
  • involves children under the age of 6.

Personal care products (e.g., cosmetics, creams, lotions, mouthwash), household cleaning products and chemicals (e.g., pesticides), and over-the-counter or prescription medications (e.g., pain relievers, cough and cold medicines, vitamins) are common causes for acute childhood poisoning.

Some types of childhood poisoning develop over time, due to repeat or chronic (i.e., long-lasting) exposure to small amounts of the toxic substance. Lead poisoning, which is more common in young children and can cause serious neurological damage, usually develops slowly over time when a child is exposed to lead.

Lead is a highly-toxic metal that can build up in the body and damage the nervous system (e.g., brain, spinal cord, nerves). Lead may be present (usually in small amounts) in contaminated soil and dust, paint and paint chips (e.g., house paint prior to 1978), toys made outside of the United States, and plumbing (e.g., pipes, faucets).

Poisoning prevention is an important part of child care. Parents and caregivers should keep all potential poisons out of the reach of children, should supervise young children at all times, and should not rely on child-resistant packaging and child safety latches to prevent poisoning.

Incidence and Prevalence of Poisoning

According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, approximately 1.5 million cases of poisoning occur in children and adolescents under the age of 20 each year in the United States. More than 50 percent of all poisonings occur in children under the age of 6 years. Peak incidence of childhood poisoning occurs between 1 and 3 years of age.

Until about the age of 13, poisoning occurs more often in boys than in girls. In adolescents and adults, poisoning is more common in women.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in the United States, about 9,500 children younger than 6 years old are hospitalized each year after getting a hold of a family member's medication.

About 25 percent of children who are exposed to a toxic substance are poisoned again within a year.

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 27 Aug 2008

Last Modified: 01 Oct 2015