Poisoning is when a person is exposed to a substance that can damage their health or endanger their life.

In 2013-14, almost 150,000 people were admitted to hospital with poisoning in England.

Most cases of poisoning happen at home and children under five have the highest risk of accidental poisoning.

In around one in four reported cases, the person intentionally poisoned themselves as a deliberate act of self-harm.

Signs and symptoms of poisoning

The symptoms of poisoning will depend on the type of poison and the amount taken in, but general things to look out for include:

  • vomiting
  • stomach pains
  • confusion
  • drowsiness and fainting fits

If a child suddenly develops these symptoms, they may have been poisoned, particularly if they're drowsy and confused.

What to do

If you suspect that someone has taken an overdose or has been poisoned, don't try to treat them yourself. Get medical help immediately.

Call NHS 111 for advice, if they don't appear to be seriously ill.

If they're showing signs of being seriously ill, such as vomiting, loss of consciousness, drowsiness or seizures (fits), call 999 to request an ambulance or take the person to your local A&E department.

In serious cases, it may be necessary for the person to stay in hospital for treatment. Most people admitted to hospital because of poisoning will survive.

Read more about what to do if you think someone has been poisoned.

Types of poisons

Poisons can be swallowed, absorbed through the skin, inhaled, splashed into the eyes, or injected.

A medication overdose is the most common form of poisoning in the UK. This can include both over-the-counter medications, such as paracetamol, and prescription medications, such as antidepressants.

Other potential poisons include:

  • household products, such as bleach
  • cosmetic items, such as nail polish
  • some types of plants and fungi
  • certain types of household chemicals and pesticides
  • carbon monoxide
  • poorly prepared or cooked food, and food that's gone mouldy or been contaminated with bacteria from raw meat (food poisoning)
  • alcohol, if an excessive amount is consumed over a short period of time (alcohol poisoning)
  • recreational drugs or substances

Snakes and insects, such as wasps and bees, aren't poisonous, but their bites or stings can contain venom (toxin).

Read more about the causes of poisoning.

Preventing poisoning

There are several things you can do to reduce your or your child’s risk of poisoning.

These include carefully reading the patient information leaflet that comes with your medication, and ensuring that any poisonous substances are locked away out of the sight and reach of your children.

Read more about preventing poisoning.

Page last reviewed: 15/06/2015

Next review due: 15/06/2017