Your kids and poison – what you need to know to save their lives if they come into contact with it

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They're so curious about the world and your home can be dangerous for them as most of the children who are poisoned every year are younger than five.
They're so curious about the world and your home can be dangerous for them as most of the children who are poisoned every year are younger than five.
Roberto Westbrook/Getty

In the wrong hands, even the ammonia we use to clean our drains could be a killer. In fact, many of the household cleaners we use every day are poisonous, and if curious children get hold of them the results can be fatal.

Most poisoning accidents occur in the home and kids are usually the victims as they’re naturally curious and often don’t know or understand how dangerous these substances can be. Also, children under the age of two don’t have a well-developed sense of taste, which is why they will swallow nasty-tasting things.

Most of the children who are poisoned every year are younger than five, according to the Poison Information Centre at Tygerberg hospital near Cape Town. Poison can be swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Here’s everything you need to know about how to handle a poison emergency.

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If your child swallows poison

Poisons that are most likely to be swallowed include things such as medication, paraffin, poisonous plants and cleaning agents.

Signs and symptoms 

Nausea, abdominal cramps, diarrhoea, vomiting, lethargy or convulsion. The child maybe coughing blood and may or may not turn blue. They might have difficulty breathing or have burn marks in or around the mouth.

What to do 

• If the child is conscious, take the poisonous item away and get the child to spit out any remaining substance.

• Call emergency services and give them as much information as you can – what poison was taken, the amount, when it was taken and the child’s age and approximate weight. 

•  If the child is unconscious and not breathing, first check for any of the poisonous substance around the mouth. If you can see any, wash it away first, then perform CPR.

• Keep a sample of what the child has taken, even if it’s an empty container. 

• Don’t try to make the child vomit as this could cause further damage. Some poisons, especially corrosive substances, can cause even more damage during vomiting.

• Do not give the child anything to eat or drink.

If your child inhales poison

Poisons that can be inhaled include carbon monoxide and gas used for heating.

Signs and symptoms

Irritated eyes, nose, throat or lungs, coughing, headache, shortness of breath or dizziness.

What to do

• Get the child to fresh air immediately. If you cannot get outdoors, open all windows and doors.

• If the child is unconscious, call emergency services immediately.

• Avoid breathing in any of the fumes yourself.

• Perform CPR if the child is unconscious and not breathing.

If your chid absorbs poison

Poisons that can be absorbed through the skin include pesticides and poisonous plants.

Signs and symptoms

Reddening of the skin, blisters, swelling or burns.

What to do

• If the child is unconscious, call emergency services immediately. 

• Run cool water over the affected area.

• Remove any clothing that has been in contact with the poison – and be careful not to touch it.

• Wash the area carefully with soap and water.

• If there’s poison in the child’s eye, rinse the eye with cool water for 20 minutes.

• Keep a sample of the substance the child absorbed.

Basic safety rules for kids

Explain to your kids what poisons are and that they can make you very sick. Tell them that some things, such as medicines, can make you sick if you take the wrong kind or too much.

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Teach them to stick to these important rules:

• If you don’t know what something is, don’t put it in your mouth. Always ask an adult you trust first.

• Never take medicine if it’s not given by an adult you trust. You can tell them exactly which people are allowed to give them medicine.

• Some plants and berries are poisonous. They should never put any plant in their mouth.

• Don’t touch things used to clean the house, clothes or car.



All medicines, even paracetamol and cough syrup, can be dangerous to your health when not used in the right dosage for the right person.

If there’s an adult in the house who is anaemic and taking iron tablets, be very careful about storage. Adult-strength iron pills are very dangerous for kids if swallowed – they can start throwing up blood or develop bloody diarrhoea in less than an hour.

Cleaning products

Detergents, cleaning sprays, bleach, washing powder, dishwashing powder, drain cleaners and so on – besides the danger of swallowing them, these can also cause chemical burns, which can be just as bad as burns from a fire.

Products that cause chemical burns include drain cleaners, rust removers, toilet bowl cleaners and oven cleaners.


Creams, ointments, shampoos, perfumes, aftershaves, nail polish remover can all be harmful, and nail glue remover can cause cyanide poisoning when swallowed by children, as well as burns to the skin and mouth.

Gasoline, kerosene, lamp oil, motor oil, lighter fluid, paint thinner and furniture polish

These are all extremely dangerous. They are also and easy to choke on and if they go down the wrong way and get into the lungs, it will be hard to breathe.


Chemicals used to kill bugs and other pests must be used carefully as they can also harm people. Many pesticides can be absorbed through skin or by breathing in the fumes.


If children swallow alcohol, they can have seizures, go into a coma or even die. Remember, alcohol is found in some mouthwashes, facial cleaners and hair tonics – these products can have as much alcohol in them as alcoholic beverages.

How to prevent poisoning

• Keep all medication out of reach of children.

• Throw away old medication. 

• Avoid taking medication in front of young kids as they may imitate you.

• Keep products in their original packaging so you know what they are.

• Keep chemical cleaning products out of reach of children.

• Never mix household chemical products as this can create a poisonous gas.

• Open windows when using chemical cleaning products.

• Use containers with child-safety caps for poisonous substances (such as pesticides) or lock them away.

• Wear protective clothing (gloves, long pants, long sleeves, socks and shoes) when spraying pesticides and other chemicals.

• Don’t burn fuels or charcoal or use petrol-powered engines in confined spaces, such as garages.

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