What to do: Accidental Ingestions

Baby holding a wooden block in its mouth; accidental ingestions


The most important thing to do when accidental ingestions occur 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.

How much was it?

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). For an adult a full swallow is about a tablespoon (15 ml).

Before you say someone drank half a cup of bleach, think about this: it would take an adult at least 8 gulps to down that much, and a child would need at least 24. Is that likely?

What to do for accidental ingestions

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 fluids if they’ve just tasted something bad. In that case, try a popsicle or ice cream instead.

Call poison control

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.

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.

Activated charcoal in the hospital

Activated charcoal is regular charcoal that is crushed into small particles and treated to make the particles porous. The particles are like tiny sponges that can adsorb toxins. For accidental ingestions, hospitals use powdered charcoal made into a kind of smoothie.

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.

Treatments that are not used

Ipecac

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

Ipecac is no longer used for two reasons. First, most things people swallow in accidental ingestions aren’t very poisonous. And second, vomiting isn’t a good way to remove a potential poison from the stomach. In fact, vomiting from ipecac is likely to be more dangerous than whatever was originally ingested. The vomiting also makes it harder to give treatments that really do help.

Ipecac can also be abused by people (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 throw it away now.

Forced vomiting

Never put your finger down a child’s throat to make them vomit. It’s not helpful or necessary, and you can rupture the delicate tissue at the back of the throat. This kind of injury can make the airway bleed and swell so it’s hard for the child to breathe.

Charcoal tablets

You can buy activated charcoal tablets over the counter and they may help treat diet-related intestinal discomfort. However, they are not for emergency use and you should not use them as a home treatment for accidental ingestions.


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