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Common Items That Can Poison Your Kids or Pets

Drain cleaners, over-the-counter drugs and even your household plants could be killers lurking in your home.

Poisons are all around us. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, poison is the leading cause of unintentional injury death, surpassing motor vehicle crashes. According to the American Association of Poison Control, more than 2 million poisonings are reported each year to the nation’s poison centers and 90 percent of those happen at home.

Though the CDC says the rates of unintentional poisonings are increasing primarily because of drug misuse and abuse, common household items can also pose a big risk to family members, especially children.

For National Poison Prevention Week, held the third week of March, we spoke with Dr. William Banner and the Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug Information on how to protect yourself and others from being poisoned. Here’s what they had to say about identifying poisons, who is at risk, and how to prevent poisoning from happening.

What is poison, exactly?

The Health Resources and Services Administration defines poison as anything that can harm someone if it is used in the wrong way, used by the wrong person or used in the wrong amount. Some poisons can be toxic to the skin and eyes or if breathed or swallowed. From snake bites to carbon monoxide and prescription pills, poisons can be solids, liquids, sprays or gases.

“Our goal at the Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug Information is to avoid that visit to the hospital altogether,” says Dr. Banner, a pediatric critical care and toxicology doctor at INTEGRIS. “While a lot of time what seems scary isn’t that big of a problem, there are a few medications out there where one pill can kill a child. Opioids, for instance, are potent enough to kill.”

Dr. Banner says the items around the house that pose the most risk for accidental poisoning include medications, “under the sink” products and, perhaps surprisingly, plants.

Dangerous medications

Medications such as acetaminophen, prescription medications, supplements, calcium channel blockers and painkillers pose the greatest risk to families.

“Common medications such as acetaminophen can warrant a call to the poison control center, but any medication can be poisonous if taken in the wrong dose,” Dr. Banner says. “We are starting to see problems with grandparents who aren’t used to locking up their prescriptions. Medications such as calcium channel blockers can be dangerous to kids.”

Dr. Banner says families should keep all medications in the original containers to prevent the medication from being taken by mistake and all medications should be in child-resistant containers. Never tell children that medicine is candy and avoid taking your own medication in front of small children who may want to imitate your actions.

“Some cough syrups taste really good to kids, and there’s a risk of them downing the whole bottle if you’re not careful,” Dr. Banner says. “Most cough medicines have acetaminophen, which is dangerous if taken in high doses.”

Always read and follow the instructions and warnings on all medications and talk to your doctor or pharmacist about all medications, vitamins, herbal products and supplements you are taking to avoid dangerous interactions.

Dr. Banner says old or outdated medications can be disposed of at numerous locations, including your doctor’s office, but flushing medicine down the toilet is not recommended.

Poisonous household products

Under most people’s sink are cleaning supplies, drain cleaners, scrubbing powders and other common consumer products. While most consumer products are safe if label directions are followed, some can be poisonous if used incorrectly, especially drain cleaner.

“Under the sink products are usually not a big problem, except drain cleaners,” says Dr. Banner. “Many cleaning products do not have the level of toxicity you’d think. But anything used to clean out drains should be disposed of immediately after you use it. Don’t keep it around and don’t put it anywhere kids can get to it. Just remember, anything common in your home can get into your kid’s mouth.”

More than 90 percent of the time, poisonings happen in people’s homes, and most of these poisonings occur in the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. Although accidents happen, here’s how you can help avoid them.

  • Use original containers with the labels in place. Labels typically include information about the product and what to do in case of poisoning.
  • Store foods separately from household chemicals and don’t keep food in containers that look like household chemicals. A good idea is to store cleaning products outside of the kitchen.
  • Never mix cleaning products. Mixing products can create poisonous gases.
  • Store household chemicals out of reach of small children and use safety locks on cabinets where chemicals are stored.
  • Discard old or outdated products. Many communities offer hazardous waste disposal drop off services for discarding chemicals.

Toxic plants

Hemlock, oleander and lilies are extremely to moderately toxic household plants, as are other decorative greens such as ivy, pothos and caladium. Toxic plants can be a hazard to children and pets, as well as to elderly persons with dementia. Poisoning can occur from eating the leaves, berries, blossoms or roots, having contact with the leaves or sap, drinking water from the plant tray or eating the soil.

“Knowing what plants you have in the house is the important step,” says Dr. Banner. “If you or someone in the home has ingested a plant, you can also take a picture and send it to us for identification.”

Most plants don't come with warning labels about possible toxicity, so before you bring home that lovely lily or decorative oleander, learn which plants are the most toxic.

And one note about plants and your pets: many indoor and outdoor plants and flowers are especially toxic to pets. Make sure you know about the toxicity of plants in your home, and keep them out of reach of your pets.

Other risks

With the weather finally warming, kids and family members will be outside more often. Pesticides, outdoor chemicals and poisonous critters are also poison risks.

“Most of the snakes in Oklahoma are non-poisonous, but we do have several poisonous snakes here,” Dr. Banner says. “The most common are copperheads, timber rattlesnakes and water moccasins. In the case of a poisonous snake bite, we will send people to the emergency room right away.”

Scorpions may sting badly, but they do not pose a poison risk. Black widow and brown recluse spiders are two poisonous Oklahoma natives that could also warrant a trip to the ER.

The good news is that most fertilizers and pesticides pose a low-toxicity risk. “Unless you intentionally drink these things, lawn care chemicals are generally not a problem,” says Dr. Banner. “Items such as Round Up or fertilizers are relatively non-toxic.”

However, a growing risk that Dr. Banner has seen is self-harming actions from pre-teens and teens.

“Impulsive acts from pre-teens and teens trying to hurt themselves are becoming problem,” he says. “Don’t think that just because you don’t have toddlers anymore that your kids aren’t at risk. If a child wants to harm himself, he’ll grab whatever is common and easy to find. Don’t keep extra prescriptions around or a lot of old cleaning supplies. In fact, it’s always a good idea to get rid of old stuff such as used antifreeze, medications and cleaning chemicals.”

Symptoms of poisoning

Poisoning symptoms can be confused by other conditions such as alcohol intoxication, stroke, seizure and insulin reaction, according to the Mayo Clinic. But be aware of these possible poisoning symptoms:

  • Burns or redness around the mouth and lips
  • Breath that smells like chemicals, such as gasoline or paint thinner
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion or other altered mental status

Poison and your pets

Did you know there are several items that are safe for humans but toxic to pets? The ASPCA recently released the top animal toxins and the results may surprise you.

  • Over-the-counter medication: Keep your medications, vitamins, and supplements out of reach of your pet at all times.
  • Human prescriptions: Common prescriptions such as antidepressants and heart medications are often accidentally ingested by pets. Keep theses prescriptions out of reach of pets at all times.
  • Food: Several common foods that are delicious to humans are harmful to pets. These foods include grapes, raisins, onions, and garlic.
  • Chocolate: Keep chocolate away from pets at all times. Take special precaution during holidays where candy is abundant, especially Halloween and Valentine’s Day.
  • Veterinary products: If your pet is given a prescription, read the label carefully to avoid improper dosing.
  • Household items: Common items such as detergent, cleaning liquids, and paint can be harmful to your pet.
  • Rodenticide: Pets may be attracted to the baits that are meant for rodents. Take precautions to ensure that your pet stays away from rodent baits.
  • Insecticide: Pets may also be attracted to popular insect baits, sprays, and yard products. Plan ahead to make sure your pet is out of proximity when using these items.
  • Plants: Common household items that are beautiful to you could be harmful to your pet. Make sure all flowers and household plants are safe for your pets.
  • Garden products: As gardening season nears, make sure to keep your pets away from harmful fertilizers and herbicides.

If you suspect poisoning, contact the Oklahoma Center for Poison and Drug information hotline at 1-800-222-1222 or text “poison” to 797979 to add the contact information to your phone list.

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