Poison: First Aid

First aid for poison

A poison is any harmful substance that is inhaled, injected, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin. If you suspect your child has been poisoned or exposed to poison, call your regional poison information centre​ immediately.

If your child is showing any signs of illness, altered awareness, or anything else that makes you immediately concerned, call 911 or your local ambulance service.

Signs and symptoms of poisoning

Common signs and symptoms include:

  • difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • drowsiness or confusion
  • nausea and vomiting
  • skin rash or burns around the mouth and lips
  • burns, stains, and odours
  • empty medication bottles
  • chemical-smelling breath or clothing

These are only some of the possible signs and symptoms. Always call a poison information centre or 911 if you suspect poisoning, even if your child shows other signs and symptoms.

Sources of poisoning

A child can be poisoned by:

  • prescription or over-the-counter medicines
  • illegal (street) drugs
  • carbon monoxide gas
  • chemicals (for example in bleach and air fresheners)
  • pesticides, herbicides and other lawn, garden, farm, or household agents
  • cleaning products
  • cosmetics and personal care products such as nail polish remover, mouthwash, or perfume
  • alcohol or products containing alcohol, such as hand sanitizer
  • poisonous plants
  • gasoline and other car products such as anti-freeze, lock de-icer, and windshield washer fluid
  • paints and craft supplies such as glue.

​​First aid for poisoning

Your regional poison information centre can guide you in providing first aid before your child gets other medical care.

What to do while waiting for medical help to arrive

  • Protect yourself from being poisoned. Be very careful not to breathe, taste, or touch the poison yourself.
  • If your child has been exposed to any dangerous fumes and it is safe to do so, get them into fresh air immediately. Follow any treatment directions the poison information centre gives you.
  • If your child has swallowed poison and is awake, give them small sips of water. Do NOT make them vomit.
  • If your child has been burned or spilled on, remove all clothing that the poison has touched and flush skin or eyes with cool or lukewarm water for 15 minutes.
  • If you are able to identify the source of the poison, bring the container or any pill bottles to the emergency room.
  • Monitor your child's breathing. If your child stops breathing, perform CPR​.

How to prevent poisoning

Children, especially very young children, explore the world with their hands and mouths and can easily swallow poison by accident. Be sure to poison-proof your home. Here are some suggestions:

  • Have working carbon monoxide detectors in your home.
  • Store medicine, cleaning products, paints and liquid cosmetics in a locked cabinet or out of reach of children.
  • Discard unused or expired medication.
  • If possible, buy medication that has a safety top.
  • Never transfer medicine or other potentially poisonous products into drinking or food containers.
  • Do not put insect poison on the floor.
  • Anything that contains small buttons (remote controls, key fobs, musical books) should be kept out of reach of children. If a child is playing with one of these devices, they should do so while closely supervised. Small button-cell batteries can be ingested by small children and can cause very serious injury.
  • Survey your own home and any other home where your child spends time (babysitter, grandparents, cottage, etc.). 

 Key points

  • If you suspect poisoning, do not wait for symptoms to develop. Seek medical care from a poison information centre or call 911 right away.
  • A child can be poisoned by many things inside and outside the home, including medicines, cleaning products, garden products, cosmetics, paints, crafts, or alcohol.
  • When performing first aid, your first step is to avoid touching, tasting, or breathing in the poison yourself.
  • If your child has breathed in poison, move them into fresh air.
  • Try and identify the poison for medical personnel so they know exactly how to treat it.​​​
Elly Berger, BA, MD, FRCPC, FAAP, MHPE