Family Health Magazine - FIRST AID
First aid and prevention
Unfortunately, preventable poisoning happens all too often. About 80,000 cases are reported each year in Western Canada alone, with about 60 per cent involving children under the age of five. Prevention is the first and most important method of defence. If a poisoning does occur, know how to take appropriate first aid measures while waiting for medical help to arrive.
A poison is any substance that can cause illness or death when absorbed by the body. They are all around us. Although poisonous products may have a poison symbol on the label, many other substances do not. Tobacco, alcohol, common household plants and contaminated food can also be poisons. Prescription and over-the-counter medicines can do harm when not taken as recommended. Many substances are safe in small quantities but are poisonous in large amounts.
The two most common types of poisons are:
- swallowed poisons – which enter the body through the mouth, and
- inhaled poisons – which enter the body through the lungs.
If you suspect someone has been poisoned, immediately call the poison information centre. Act quickly but do not panic. Before calling, gather as many details as you can so you will be prepared to answer the questions you will be asked.
Poison Information Centres
You will find the phone number for your local poison information centre listed at the front of your telephone directory.
B.C. Drug and Poison Information Centre
Rest of B.C.:
Alberta Poison and Drug Information Service (PADIS)
Rest of Alberta:
(Central and Northern Saskatchewan)
Royal University Hospital
Saskatoon - Poison Control Centre
Regina General Hospital
Provincial Poison Information Centre
History of the scene
When you phone for help you should be able to give information about four things:
- What poison was taken? Container labels should identify the poison. If you cannot see any identification, save the container, and any vomit, so that the contents can be analyzed.
- How much poison was taken? Estimate the amount that may have been taken based on what you see or are told - the number of pills originally in the container (check the label) or the amount of chemical in the bottle. Also try to determine of the age and weight of the person.
- How did the poison enter the body? First aid is often different depending on whether poison was consumed or breathed into the lungs.
- When was the poison taken? The length of time the poison has been in the body affects the first aid and medical care needed.
Signs and symptoms of poisoning
If you have no way of knowing what poison was taken or how, the person’s signs and symptoms may provide an answer.
- Poisons that have been swallowed usually cause nausea, abdominal cramps, diarrhea or vomiting and may affect consciousness, breathing and pulse. Lips may be discoloured, the mouth may be burned or breath may have a strange odour.
- Inhaled poisons may cause problems with breathing, and may affect consciousness and the pulse. There may be coughing, chest pain and difficult breathing. Prolonged exposure to natural gas or carbon monoxide (CO) from combustion engines can cause headache, dizziness, unconsciousness, stopped breathing and cardiac arrest. Carbon monoxide is a clear, odourless gas that kills many people every year. Carbon monoxide is found in car exhaust and can also be caused by a faulty furnace. Silo gas (nitrogen dioxide) is a similar hazard that may be found in a farming environment.
General first aid for poisoning
- Following the guidelines above, learn as much as you can about the suspected poison and assess whether the poisoned person is alert enough to respond.
- If the person is conscious, call the poison information centre in your region. (See sidebar on the following page).
- If you cannot contact the poison information centre, call your hospital emergency department, your doctor or 911. Answer any questions and follow first aid advice.
- If the poisoned person is unconscious, call 911 or an ambulance immediately and go to step 2.
- If the person is not breathing check for poisonous material in or around the mouth. If there is any sign of the poison, wipe it off and use the mouth-to-nose method of artificial respiration. Use a barrier device if you have one.
- Place a person who is breathing and unconscious into the recovery position.
- Stay with the person until medical help takes over.
First aid for swallowed poisons
- Do not dilute a poison that has been swallowed (do not give fluids) unless told to do so by the poison information centre or a doctor.
- Wipe any visible poison from the person’s face.
- If the person is conscious, rinse or wipe out the mouth.
- Never make a person vomit unless you are told to do so by the poison information centre or a doctor. Many poisons cause more damage when vomited.
First aid for inhaled poisons
- Check the area to remove dangers such as a flame near a poisonous gas or vapour.
- Move the person to fresh air and away from the source of the poison. Inhaled poisons, such as gases, should be cleared from the lungs as quickly as possible.
- If the person is not responding, call for medical help right away.
- Give first aid where necessary. Monitor breathing closely and give mouth-to-mouth artificial respiration if needed. If the poison could affect you while giving first aid, use a face mask or shield with a one-way valve, or as a last choice, use an indirect method such as mouth to nose artificial respiration.
- If vomiting occurs, keep the airway open by clearing out the mouth and putting the person into the recovery position.
- In the case of convulsion, move the person away from surrounding objects that may cause injury.
- Get medical help and stay with the person until help arrives.
Protect your loved ones and friends by doing everything you can to prevent poisoning. Be prepared! Learn what to do in an emergency by taking a recognized first aid course.
Focus on Safety
How to prevent poisoning
Most poisonings can be prevented. Be aware of and properly use and store poisons in your home. The average household contains many poisonous substances, including medicines, cleaning products, plant care products and materials used in hobbies and crafts. The following tips can help prevent poisoning:
- Keep household and drug products in their original containers for easy identification, so that instructions will be available each time they are used, and so that label information is at hand in case of poisoning.
- Read label instructions on containers before use, and follow the directions.
- Do not put harmful products in food or drink containers.
- Destroy foods that you think may be contaminated.
- Ventilate areas where toxic chemicals are used. Open windows and doors so that fumes do not become concentrated.
- Operate gas combustion engines only where there is good ventilation, preferably outdoors.
- Prevent medication errors by carefully checking the five rights for giving medicines – the right medicine, the right person, the right amount and the right time, by the right method.
- Teach young children to recognize warning labels on products, and to stay away from these products when they see the warning labels.
- Many houseplants are poisonous. If you have children in the house, discard all poisonous plants. Label every plant so it can be identified quickly.
- Do not leave medication in a purse or on a night table where children can get at it.
- Remember, the tobacco in a single cigarette can cause serious harm if eaten by a child.
- Harmful products should be locked up and out-of-reach.
ADAPTED FROM: First on the Scene, (a First Aid and CPR Training Manual published by St. John Ambulance, 2004)
While effort is made to reflect accepted medical knowledge and practice, articles in Family Health Online should not be relied upon for the treatment or management of any specified medical problem or concern and Family Health accepts no liability for reliance on the articles. For proper diagnosis and care, you should always consult your family physician promptly. © Copyright 2012, Family Health Magazine, a special publication of the Edmonton Journal, a division of Postmedia Network Inc., 10006 - 101 Street, Edmonton, AB T5J 2S6 [CH_FHd06]