Being poisoned can be life-threatening. If someone has swallowed a poisonous substance, don't try to treat them yourself – seek medical help immediately.
If they're showing signs of being seriously ill, dial 999 to request an ambulance or take them to your local A&E department.
Symptoms associated with serious poisoning include:
- being sick
- sudden, noticeable heartbeats (palpitations)
- breathing difficulties
- uncontrollable restlessness or agitation
- seizures (fits)
- drowsiness or loss of consciousness
Call NHS 111 for advice if a person who's been poisoned doesn't appear to be seriously ill.
Helping someone who's conscious
If you think someone has been severely poisoned and they're still conscious, ask them to sit still and stay with them while you wait for medical help to arrive.
If they've been poisoned by swallowing something, try to get them to spit out anything that is remaining in their mouth.
If a harmful substance has splashed onto their skin or clothes, remove any contaminated items and wash the affected area thoroughly with warm or cool water. Be careful not to contaminate yourself in the process.
Helping someone who is unconscious
If you think someone has swallowed poison and they appear to be unconscious, try to wake them and encourage them to spit out anything left in their mouth. Don't put your hand into their mouth and don't try to make them sick.
While you're waiting for medical help to arrive, lie the person on their side with a cushion behind their back and their upper leg pulled slightly forward, so they don't fall on their face or roll backwards. This is known as the recovery position.
Wipe any vomit away from their mouth and keep their head pointing down, to allow any vomit to escape without them breathing it in or swallowing it. Don't give them anything to eat or drink.
If the person isn't breathing or their heart has stopped, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if you know how to.
If you think someone has inhaled poisonous fumes, assess the situation first and don't put yourself in danger.
If the person is conscious, encourage them to make their way out of the contaminated area, if at all possible. Once they're out into fresh air, check to see if they're OK and call 999 if they have signs of serious poisoning (see above).
Dial 999 to request an ambulance if the person is unconscious or unable to get out of the affected area. Don't enter any enclosed areas to remove the person yourself because toxic gases and fumes can be very dangerous if inhaled.
How to help medical staff
Medical staff will need to take a detailed history to effectively treat a person who's been poisoned. When the paramedics arrive or when you arrive at A&E, give them as much information as you can, including:
- what substances you think the person may have swallowed
- when the substance was taken (how long ago)
- why the substance was taken – whether it was an accident or deliberate
- how it was taken (for example, swallowed or inhaled)
- how much was taken (if you know)
Give details of any symptoms the person has had, such as whether they've been sick.
Medical staff may also want to know:
- the person's age and estimated weight
- whether they have any existing medical conditions
- whether they're taking any medication (if you know)
The container the substance came in will help give medical staff a clear idea of what it is. If you don't know what caused the poisoning, blood tests may be needed to identify the cause.
Some people who have swallowed a poisonous substance or overdosed on medication will be admitted to hospital for examination and treatment.
Possible treatments that can be used to treat poisoning include:
- activated charcoal – sometimes used to treat someone who's been poisoned; the charcoal binds to the poison and stops it being further absorbed into the blood
- antidotes – these are substances that either prevent the poison from working or reverse its effects
- sedatives – may be given if the person is agitated
- a ventilator (breathing machine) – may be used if the person stops breathing
- anti-epileptic medicine – may be used if the person has seizures (fits)
Tests and investigations
Investigations may include blood tests and an electrocardiogram (ECG).
A blood test can be used to check the levels of chemicals and glucose in the blood. They may be used to perform a toxicology screen (tests to find out how many drugs or how much medication a person has taken), and a liver function test, which indicates how damaged the liver is.
An ECG is an electrical recording of the heart to check that it's functioning properly.
For more information about treating specific types of poisoning see:
Page last reviewed: 31 May 2018
Next review due: 31 May 2021