Preventing Childhood Poisonings

In recognition of National Poison Prevention Week, Margaret Burke, Pharm.D., CSPI shares some facts about accidental poisonings in children and what to do if you think your child (or you) has been exposed to a poison. 

What to Do If You Think a Child Is Exposed to a Poison

If the child appears to be unresponsive, unconscious, or not breathing, call 911 immediately!


  1. Try to remain calm
  2. Do not induce vomiting
  3. Initiate first aid instructions if they are listed on the product container
  4. Bring the product container or pill bottle to the phone with you, if possible
  5. Call the Poison Center Emergency Number: 800-222-2221

Call the Poison Center Emergency Number before you call the pediatrician. Because poison control centers (PCCs) are staffed 24 hours a day, they will be able to quickly assess the seriousness of the exposure and will work with you to determine if it is safe to monitor your child at home or if you should go to an emergency room. Although your pediatrician’s office will have someone on call, you may have to wait for a return phone call which might delay appropriate management. Pediatricians will often recommend that you call the PCC.

Expect the poison specialist to ask you several questions. Answer the best that you can. Your answers will help them evaluate the seriousness of the exposure and what action to take. Some questions might include:

  • “Describe what happened.”
  • “When did this happen?”
  • “How many or how much was in the container before and how much is left now?”
  • “How is the child right now?”
  • “What have you done for the child so far?”

PCCs are staffed by nurses, pharmacists, and physicians, many of whom take an exam to become certified specialists in poison information (CSPI). They answer questions from the public and healthcare facilities about possible poisoning exposures. They also help guide care of patients who require treatment for their poisoning exposure. PCCs are staffed 24 hours a day 365 days a year.

In their 34th Annual Report, the American Association of Poison Control Centers describe nearly 2.16 million poisoning exposures called into 55 United States’ PCCs during 2016. Almost half, or 1 million, of the exposures occurred in children less than 6 years old and 24 children died as a result of their poisoning.

Top Poison Exposure Risks

child reaching for cleaner in cabinetOne and 2-year-old children had the greatest number of exposures. Most exposures occurred at home, were accidental, and involved just one substance. Ingesting something by mouth was the most common means of poisoning. Fortunately, 2 out of 3 of all exposures could be managed at home. The rest required follow-up at a healthcare facility.

The top three substances involved in poisoning exposures for children younger than 6 years old were:

  •  Personal care products and cosmetics
  • Household cleaning products
  • Pain relievers

Contacting Your PCC

There is one phone number throughout the U.S. to reach a poison control center:


Make sure you and anyone who takes care of your children have this number readily available. You can text “POISON” to 797979 to store the contact information on your smartphone.

When you call, you will be connected to the nearest PCC according to the area code of the phone you are calling from. If you are travelling or have moved to another state but kept your old cell phone number, it may be helpful to say “I am calling from (insert the state name)” at the beginning of the call. The PCC you reach may make an initial assessment of the seriousness of the exposure but then route your call to the geographically closest PCC to your current location. This is especially true if you will need to go to a hospital because PCCs know the hospitals in their own region best.

A Tip to Prevent Accidental Poisonings: No Container is “Childproof”

Parents often report that they are surprised their child was able to open the “childproof cap.” There is no such thing.

Containers may be “child-resistant”. In order to be considered “child-resistant,” containers are actually tested by giving them to between 50 and 200 children, ages 42 to 51 months, for 5 minutes with the instructions, “Please try to open this for me.” The testing standards, set by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, require that 85% of the children not be able to open the container in that time. However, that means that up to 15 out of 100 children MAY BE ABLE to open a “child-resistant” container.

So, it is very important not to rely only on a cap to prevent a child’s access to what is inside a container. Keep household products and medicines locked up and out of reach of children.

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