Signs and Symptoms of Poisoning

Signs and symptoms of poisoning depend on the amount and type of toxin, the form of exposure (e.g., ingestion, skin absorption, inhalation), and the age and overall health of the person. In some cases, poisoning does not cause noticeable symptoms.

Signs that may indicate poisoning include the following:

  • Drug or chemical containers that are open, spilled, or out of place
  • Unusual odors (e.g., the breath or clothing, in the air)
  • Spills and stains on clothing, skin, flooring, etc.
  • Acute (sudden) or chronic (long-lasting) symptoms (e.g., behavior changes, drowsiness, heavy drooling, stomach pain, sweating, vomiting)

Symptoms can vary from mild to moderate to severe. Mild poisoning symptoms usually resolve quickly, are localized (i.e., affect one area of the body), and do not require medical treatment. Mild symptoms of poisoning may include the following:

  • Behavior changes (e.g., restlessness, crankiness)
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Minor skin or eye irritation
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Passing cough (cough that comes and goes)
  • Soreness or stiffness in the joints
  • Thirst
  • Moderate symptoms of poisoning may be prolonged (i.e., long lasting) and systemic (i.e., affect more than one organ, organ system, or part of the body) and often require treatment. Moderate poisoning symptoms, which usually are not life threatening or permanent, may include the following:

    • Blurred vision
    • Confusion and disorientation
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Drooling
    • Excessive tearing
    • Fever
    • Low blood pressure (hypotension)
    • Loss of muscle control and muscle twitching
    • Paleness (pallor) or flushed or yellowish skin
    • Persistent cough
    • Rapid heart rate
    • Seizures
    • Severe diarrhea
    • Severe nausea
    • Stomach cramps
    • Sweating
    • Thirst
    • Trembling
    • Weakness

    Severe poisoning symptoms are life threatening and can result in permanent brain damage, disability, or death. Major symptoms of poisoning include the following:

    • Cardiopulmonary arrest
    • Convulsions
    • Disseminated intravascular coagulation (condition that causes uncontrolled bleeding or blood clotting)
    • Esophageal stricture (narrowing of the organ that carries food from the mouth to the stomach)
    • Fever (often high)
    • Inability to breathe
    • Increased respiration (rapid breathing)
    • Loss of consciousness
    • Muscle twitching (uncontrolled and severe)
    • Rapid heart rate with low blood pressure
    • Respiratory distress that requires intubation (involves passing a tube down the trachea [windpipe] to the lungs to provide breathing assistance; mechanical respiration [i.e., a ventilator] may be necessary)
    • Seizures that do not respond to treatment (called status epilepticus)
    • Thirst (often extreme)

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

    Published: 27 Aug 2008

    Last Modified: 01 Oct 2015