In-Home Poison: What You Need to Know


Have you ever called one twin by the other twin’s name? Or accidentally used baking powder instead of flour?

These are simple mistakes that are easy to fix. Some mix-ups, however, are not as easily reversed.

Several common items in the home look strikingly similar to poisonous items and can easily be accidentally used or consumed. It is important to know how to identify look-alikes, store them safely and how to handle accidental contact to keep you and your family safe.

Sallie L. Hooker, Regional Extension Agent, Family and Child Development, provides some insight on in-home poisons and how to stay safe.

The Most Common “Look-Alikes”

“Medications account for 50 percent of all childhood poisonings, followed by household products, cosmetics and plants,” Hooker said. “Paints and petroleum products also rank high.” Medications can be confused with candy to a child.

Another common mistake because of similar appearance is confusing Ex-lax for Hershey’s chocolate. This mix up is not poisonous but can yield unwanted results.

Colored cleaners and washing products also stand as potential dangers.

“One parent shared with me that her son had mistaken Windex for a power drink,” Hooker said. “Items frequently in the news are dishwashing packets and clothes detergent packets that are mistaken for candy. There have been fatalities connected to this error.”

Read to Recognize

Always read labels before consuming or using. This is the best way to differentiate between a non-poisonous and poisonous item. Hooker suggests reading labels for your children, or elderly family members who have vision issues.

Safely Stored

“Store harmful products out of reach or use safety closures on cabinets,” Hooker said. “Keep products in original containers. Essential information about a product will be available in case of an accident. If a product is changed to a different container, label the container correctly.”

Below is a list of tips Hooker suggests for storing potentially dangerous items:

  • Keep labels on harmful items.
  • Properly destroy and discard used containers, making sure that they are empty.
  • Store medications separately from other products.
  • NEVER give or take medication prescribed for someone else.
  • Request childproof containers.
  • Consult your physician or druggist before combining medications.
  • Teach children the universal symbol for poison – the skull and crossbones.
  • Store household cleaners etc. out of reach of children – not under kitchen cabinets or bathroom sinks.
  • Lock the storage cabinets or use childproof devices to secure the cabinets.
  • Never leave medicines within children’s reach.
  • Do not take medicines in front of children – they are imitators.
  • Store medications in a locked suitcase.
  • Keep purses out of reach of children.
  • Never call medications candy.
  • Never give, or take, medications in the dark.

Accidental Contact: What To Do

“Read the label and follow the directions for treating accidental poisoning,” Hooker said. “Call the Poison HELP line at 1-800-222-122.”

“If a poison has caused a burn to the individual’s mouth and lips, administer a cool damp cloth on the lips, do not induce vomiting and call 911.”

What about Carbon Monoxide?

Carbon monoxide is also known as the “Invisible Killer.”

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless very toxic gas that can be fatal if undetected,” Hooker said. “It is formed by the incomplete combustion of carbon in a gas flame.”

According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), “150 people in the Unites States die every year from accidental non-fire related CO poisoning associated with consumer products, including generators.”

“Other products include faulty, improperly used or incorrectly vented fuel-burning appliances such as furnaces, stoves, water heaters and fireplaces.”

The CPSC reports that initial carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness

To avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, Hooker suggests that all gas appliances, or any appliance with a pilot light, is inspected by a certified technician on an annual basis.

“Install carbon monoxide detectors, and never use an outside gas grill inside the home,” Hooker said.

What Else Do I Need to Know?

Hooker and Margaret Odom, Certified Extension Educator and Regional Extension Agent, created an excellent Extension publication explaining in-home look-alikes and potential poisons. To read the publication, click here.

For more information on carbon monoxide and further safety tips, visit the CPSC website here.

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