Causes of poisoning 

In the UK, medications are the most common cause of poisoning and are responsible for almost two in every three cases.

The medications most commonly linked to poisoning are:

However, all medications have the potential to be harmful if taken at too high a dose, or if taken by someone who hasn't been prescribed them.

Household products

The second most common cause of poisoning is household products, which account for up to one in four cases. These can include:

  • cleaning products, such as bleach, caustic soda and disinfectant
  • cosmetics, such as baby oil, shampoo and nail varnish remover
  • DIY products, such as paint, glue and wallpaper paste
  • garden products, such as weedkiller and rat poison

Carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a poisonous, odourless gas produced by the incomplete burning of fuels, such as gas, wood or petrol. These types of fuels are used in many household appliances, such as heaters and cookers.

If appliances aren't regularly serviced and maintained, carbon monoxide can leak from them without you realising, which can cause loss of consciousness and death.

Read more about carbon monoxide poisoning.

Food and alcohol

Food can sometimes cause food poisoning if it goes mouldy, becomes contaminated with bacteria from raw meat, or it hasn't been prepared or cooked properly.

Drinking too much alcohol in a short space of time can also cause alcohol poisoning.

Who's at risk?

Poisoning can affect anyone at any age, but young children aged under five who are able to walk are most at risk.

This is because they often put things in their mouths without realising they may be harmful. Also, as their bodies are smaller, they're more vulnerable to the harmful effects of certain substances.

The most common substances involved in cases of child poisoning are:

  • cosmetics
  • cleaning products
  • painkillers
  • medications that come in cream, lotion or ointment form
  • foreign bodies, such as small coins or batteries
  • cough and cold medications
  • plants
  • vitamin supplements
  • antibiotics

Older children and adults who self-harm or have suicidal thoughts may intentionally poison themselves. It's estimated that about one in every four cases of poisoning is intentional.

Snakes and insects

Snakes and insects, such as wasps and bees, aren't poisonous but they can inject venom into your skin when they bite or sting you. The adder is the only venomous snake that lives in the UK.

How severely you're affected by a snake bite or insect sting will depend on the amount of venom injected and whether you're allergic to it.

Read more about insect stings and snake bites.

Page last reviewed: 15/06/2015

Next review due: 01/06/2018