What to do: Ingestions

Baby holding a wooden block in its mouth; accidental ingestions

The most important thing to do when an accidental ingestion occurs is to stay calm. Remember that most household products don’t taste very good. Whether the ingester is a curious toddler or a distracted adult, they’ll usually stop as soon as they realize their mistake.

Don’t take a wild guess as to how much of something may have been ingested. Keep in mind a full swallow for a child is about a teaspoon (5 ml) and for an adult about a tablespoon (15 ml). Before you say someone drank half a cup of bleach, consider that it would take an adult at least 8 gulps to down that much, and a child would need at least 24. Think about how likely that is.

What to do

Wipe or rinse the mouth. First wipe any residue, such as ointment or pill fragments, from the mouth. Adults and children four years and older can swish with plain water and spit it out. For younger children, rinse the mouth by wiping with a dripping wet washcloth.

Drink plain water. An adult should drink about 8 ounces, and a child about 4 ounces. You are trying to rinse the throat and dilute anything that made it to the stomach, not “flush it out.” Drinking too much too quickly can cause nausea or other discomfort.

A child may refuse an offer of fluids if they’ve tasted something bad. In that case, try a popsicle or ice cream instead.

What to expect

Most household products are harmless when tasted, although some may irritate the mouth. When swallowed, some irritate the throat or stomach and may cause gagging, a burning sensation or vomiting. In some cases medical treatment may be needed, so call poison control at (800) 222-1222 for personal advice that is specific to your situation. Make this call before going to the internet, as what you read there may not apply to you.

Exception: If someone loses consciousness or has trouble breathing or swallowing, call 911 instead of poison control.

Treatments that are not used

Ipecac. Many years ago parents were advised to have ipecac on hand for poisoning emergencies. Derived from the root of a plant in the same family as coffee, quinine and gardenias, ipecac causes vomiting by irritating the stomach.

Ipecac is no longer used because vomiting is not an effective way to remove a potential poison from the stomach. In fact, ipecac-induced vomiting is likely to be more dangerous than whatever was originally ingested, and can make it harder to give treatments that really do help.

Ipecac can also be abused by those (usually young women) with eating disorders. Chronic ipecac abuse can cause serious — even fatal — damage to the heart. If you still have ipecac in your medicine cabinet, you should discard it now.

Forced vomiting. Never put your finger down a child’s throat to make them vomit. It’s not helpful or necessary and your child will truly be in danger if you rupture the delicate tissue at the back of the throat. This kind of injury can cause the airway to bleed and swell, making it hard for the child to breathe.

Activated charcoal. Activated charcoal is regular charcoal that has been crushed into small particles and treated to make the particles porous, like tiny sponges, so they can adsorb toxins. The activated charcoal used in emergency rooms is a very fine powder that is mixed with liquid to the consistency of a smoothie. Used this way, activated charcoal can prevent some potential poisons from being absorbed into the body. The amount of charcoal given, and the way it is given, depends on the patient and is not without risk; it is meant to be used under medical supervision.

Activated charcoal tablets are sold over the counter and may be helpful for treating diet-related intestinal discomfort, but they are not for emergency use and should not be given as a home treatment for poisoning.

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