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First Aid: My Child Just Swallowed Poison—What Do I Do?

My Child Just Swallowed Poison—What Do I Do?

You may have poison-proofed your home and taken all the necessary precautions to prevent your child from accessing those dangerous substances. Even so, the unexpected may still occur, which is why it’s important that you are always aware of your little one’s whereabouts and activities in the home.

Since poisons can enter the body in various ways, knowing the history of the scene is crucial.


Understanding the history of the scene

  • Before you decide to take any first aid action, information relating to the emergency scene should be known. Let’s call this the basic -WHAT’ of the scene. Your guide through the -WHAT’ of the scene is provided below.
  • Next, you should take note of the signs and symptoms of swallowed poisons. Sometimes, more than one aspect of the -WHAT’ may not seem obvious or very little is known. For instance, you may not know what poison was taken or how much of it was consumed. Signs and symptoms may be useful in gaining valuable information.

So far, all you need to know is the easy-to-remember -WHAT’ and the signs and symptoms that occur after the poison is swallowed.

After this, it is important that you call the Poison Information Centre for advice on what steps to take. The history of the scene as well the signs and symptoms that you have gathered from step one and two will become significant in answering the questions that will be posed.

The Poison Information Centre(POI) is a 24 hour emergency service available to the South African public. At the moment, there are two emergency poison lines which offer professional medical assistance relating to poisons. The POI’s database holds information relating to over 40 000 toxins. The experts offer advice for victims of all ages – including babies, toddles, children and adults. Whether its inhalation, absorption or consumption of toxins, the POI is able to offer advice on the substance from its extensive database. They will provide you with information about side effects and will even advise you on what to do.


Questions you need to answer

Step 1:  History of the scene — Know the -WHAT’

(W)hat poison was taken? Look at the container labels. Make sure your can identify the poison. If you can’t, you will need to save vomit for further inspection by medical professionals.

(H)ow much was taken? Either ask your child or approximate the quantity based on the material left in the container.

(A)dmission into the body? Knowing how the poison entered the body will determine the type of first aid required. Remember there are other types of poisoning such as inhalation, injection (snakes) and absorption.

(T)ime the poison was taken? This will determine how long the poison has been in the body. This information will help you when giving first aid as well as reporting to medical professionals.

Step 2: Signs and symptoms

If your child swallowed poison, this it may cause the following symptoms:

  1. Nausea
  2. Diarrhoea
  3. Vomiting
  4. Abdominal cramps
  5. Discoloured lips
  6. Breathe has an odour
  7. Burns in or around the mouth

Step 3: Action

  1. Analyse the -WHAT’ of the scene and then call the Poison Information Centre.
  2. Unless told to do so by the Poison Information Centre, DO NOT offer fluids to someone who has swallowed a poisonous substance.
  3. If your child is conscious and if necessary, wipe any poisonous or corrosive excess from the mouth and rinse mouth.
  4. Unless advised by the Poison Information Centre, do not instigate vomiting as it may lead to more harm.


Do not force your child to vomit if poisoning is caused by substances below

Vomiting SHOULD NOT be instigated if poisoning is caused by the substances below. You SHOULD NOT offer anything to eat or drink. Take the victim to the hospital/clinic, immediately.

  • Acid
  • Oven cleaner
  • Oil Paints
  • Battery Acid
  • Ammonia
  • Chlorine (Pool)
  • Dishwashing powder
  • Disinfectants
  • Drain cleaner
  • Mothballs
  • Weed killer
  • Metal cleaner and polishes
  • Turpentine


Offer water or milk for below mentioned substances

You SHOULD immediately offer milk or water for the substances below. About half to a full cup should be enough. You should then contact the poison centre for further assistance.

  • Deodorant
  • Vitamins
  • Cosmetics
  • Shampoo
  • Perfumes
  • Ammonia
  • Alcohol

Vomiting SHOULD NOT be instigated if poisoning is caused by the substances below.  You should then contact the poison centre for further assistance.

  • Dishwashing liquid
  • Fabric dye
  • Hair dye
  • Bleach
  • Fabric softener
  • Clothing detergents
  • Window cleaner
  • Hydrogen peroxide


Activated Charcoal Mixture

Activated Charcoal should be taken after poison has been consumed.  The charcoal mixture will help absorb the poison.  After taking the recommended dosage, either call the poison centre or take the victim to the hospital or clinic as soon as possible. The mixture should be taken only for the following:

  • Nail varnish remover
  • Cough syrup
  • Paracetamol
  • Aspirin
  • Pesticides
  • Pills
  • Insecticides
  • Insect repellent
  • Snail or rat bait

Infants should take one gram of activated charcoal

Children should take 15-30 grams of activated charcoal in 240ml of water (single dose)

In situations where your child has swallowed a poison, it is always important to refrain from offering any liquids unless advised to do so by the Poison Information Centre. Secondly, never induce vomiting as it may cause unsolicited harm. The Poison Information Centre is available to offer you the assistance you will need to ease your feelings of confusion and worry. It is important that you do not panic or ignore the warnings above.



Useful contacts

Poison Information Centre [POI]

(Red Cross Children’s Hospital Poison Line)

Telephone:         021 689 5227


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