Dealing with Poisoning

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This leaflet is created from first aid advice provided by St John Ambulance, the nation's leading first aid charity. This advice is no substitute for first aid training - find a training course near you.

Alcohol poisoning is what happens to someone when they've drunk a dangerous amount of alcohol, normally in a short space of time.

Drinking too much alcohol stops the nervous system from working properly, particularly in the brain. This can severely weaken the mental and physical body functions, like sight, speech, coordination and memory.

Alcohol poisoning can also send a person into deep unresponsiveness and, at worst, can slow or even shut down their breathing, causing death.

What to look for

If you think someone may have alcohol poisoning, these are the key things to look for:

  • A strong smell of alcohol and you may see empty bottles or cans.
  • Confusion and slurred speech.
  • Vomiting.
  • Reddened and moist face.
  • Deep, noisy breathing.
  • A strong, pounding pulse.
  • Unresponsiveness.

If they are unresponsive, you also need to look for:

  • Shallow breathing.
  • Weak, rapid pulse.
  • Widened pupils that react poorly to light.

What you need to do

  • Reassure them and cover them with a coat or blanket to keep them warm.
  • Check them over for any injuries, especially head injuries, or any other medical conditions.
  • If they are breathing normally but are not fully responsive, place them into the recovery position.
  • Keep checking their breathing, level of response and pulse.
  • Don't make them be sick as this could block their airway and stop them from breathing.
  • If you're unsure about how serious their condition is then call 999 or 112 for medical help.
  • If they lose responsiveness at any point, open their airway, check their breathing and prepare to treat someone who's become unresponsive.

Poisons are substances that can cause temporary or permanent damage if too much is absorbed by the body. Poisons can be swallowed, inhaled, injected or absorbed through the skin.

Someone can get drug poisoning from taking an overdose of prescribed drugs, over the counter drugs, or illegal drugs.

But the effects will be different depending on the type of drug and how the person has taken it, such as by swallowing, inhaling or injecting.

What to look for

If you think someone may have drug poisoning, these are 10 common things to look for:

  1. Stomach pain, nausea and vomiting.
  2. Sleepiness leading to unresponsiveness.
  3. Confusion and deliriousness.
  4. Excitable hyperactive behaviour.
  5. Sweating.
  6. Shaking hands.
  7. Hallucinations - they may claim to 'hear voices' or 'see things'.
  8. Unusually slow or fast pulse.
  9. Unusually small or large pupils.
  10. Needle marks which may be infected.

What you need to do

  • Call 999 or 111 for medical help.
  • If they're responsive, help them into a comfortable position and ask them what they've taken.
  • Gather as much information as you can. While you wait for help to arrive, look for any packaging or containers that will help identify the drugs.
  • Keep checking their breathing, pulse and level of response.
  • If they lose responsiveness at any point, open their airway, check their breathing and prepare to treat someone who's become unresponsive.
  • Never try to make them vomit, but if they vomit naturally then put some of this into a bag or container and give it to the ambulance - this may help them identify the drug.

Food poisoning is caused by eating contaminated food. In most cases the food hasn't been cooked properly and is contaminated by bacteria such as salmonella or Escherichia coli (E. coli), which are found mainly in meat.

Someone may feel the effects of food poisoning within a few hours, and will often be sick or have diarrhoea. However, in some cases it can take up to three days.

The effects of food poisoning can make someone feel extremely ill. The most important thing is for you to keep encouraging the person to drink water so they don't get dehydrated. Most people will get better without needing treatment.

What to look for

If you think someone may have food poisoning, these are the five key things to look for:

  • Feeling sick.
  • Vomiting, sometimes bloodstained.
  • Stomach cramps.
  • Diarrhoea.
  • Headache or fever.

What you need to do

  • If you notice any of these symptoms, tell the person to lie down and rest.
  • Give them plenty of water and a bowl to use in case they are sick.
  • Encourage them to drink as much water as they can, even if they can only manage regular small sips. If they have diarrhoea, it's even more important that they drink water to replace lost fluids.
  • Giving them an oral rehydration solution is good to way to replace fluids lost through diarrhoea and vomiting. This solution can replace salt and other minerals which they have lost. You can buy it in a pharmacy as a sachet which you dissolve in water.
  • If the person gets worse, then advise them to call their doctor or call 999 or 112 for emergency medical help.

Poisons are substances that can cause temporary or permanent damage if too much is absorbed by the body. Poisons can be swallowed, inhaled, injected or absorbed through the skin.

Swallowed poisons include chemicals, drugs, plants, fungi and berries. For more on drugs, see drug poisoning.

Dangerous chemicals include household products like bleach, which can poison or burn the body if swallowed.

Poisonous plants include foxgloves, wild arum and certain types of mushroom. Eating laburnum seeds can cause seizures.

Drugs, both prescribed or those bought over the counter, can also be harmful if someone takes too many.

What to look for

If you think someone may have swallowed poison, these are the five key things to look for:

  1. Nausea and vomiting (sometimes bloodstained).
  2. Cramping stomach pains.
  3. A burning sensation.
  4. Partial loss of responsiveness.
  5. Seizures.

What you need to do

  • If the person is conscious, ask them what they have swallowed, how much and when. Look for clues, like plants, berries or empty packaging and containers.
  • Call 999 or 112 for medical help and tell them as much information as possible.
  • Keep checking their breathing, pulse and level of response.
  • If they become unresponsive, open their airway and check breathing. Follow the instructions for treating someone who is unresponsive.
  • Never try to make the person vomit, but if they vomit naturally then put some of their vomit into a bag or container and give it to the ambulance. This may help them identify the poison.
  • Chemicals that are swallowed may harm the digestive tract, or cause more widespread damage if they enter the bloodstream and are transported to other parts of the body.
  • Hazardous chemicals include common household substances. For example, bleach, dishwasher detergent, and paint stripper are poisonous or corrosive if swallowed. Drugs, whether they are prescribed or bought over the counter, are also potentially harmful if they are taken in overdose. The effects of poisoning depend on the substance that has been swallowed.

Note: these hints are no substitute for thorough knowledge of first aid. St John Ambulance holds first aid courses throughout the country.

Adapted from the St John Ambulance leaflets: alcohol poisoning, drug poisoning, food poisoning and swallowed poisons. Copyright for this leaflet is with St John Ambulance.

Original Author:
St John Ambulance
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
St John Ambulance
Document ID:
28669 (v2)
Last Checked:
21/11/2016
Next Review:
21/11/2019
Now read about Drug Misuse and Dependence

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