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The Signs and Symptoms of Poisoning

Updated on October 11, 2012

It is vitally important for all adults to be aware of the Signs and Symptoms of Poisoning. In the United States alone, nearly one hundred people die and thousands more receive treatment for accidental poisoning every day. Poisons are everywhere! They are present in many household chemicals, medicines, contaminated foods, plants and lead-based paints. Even table salt, if consumed in a high enough quantity at one sitting, becomes toxic to the body.

The Definition of Poison

Poison is any substance that has the capacity to cause injury or death when it is either swallowed or is absorbed by the body in some way. Different poisons have varying levels of toxicity. The most toxic poisons will exert their effects almost immediately and the Symptoms of Poisoning will quickly emerge. Weaker poisons usually accumulate in the body within the fat cells, bones or skin before the individual displays any symptoms.

How Poisoning Occurs

Poisoning can occur by accident or it can be a calculated and deliberate act. Most cases of poisoning are unintentional, however. In many cases, people become poisoned from eating contaminated foods such as undercooked poultry, or from overdosing on medication. Some people are poisoned when they come into contact with poisonous plants.

Many poisonings occur only after repeated ingestion of – or exposure to – small doses of the toxins. In such cases it usually takes a while for the Symptoms of Poisoning to appear. This type of poisoning is referred to as chronic poisoning.

When Signs of Poisoning occur soon after just one dose of the toxin it is known as acute poisoning. Most toxic substances will cause poisoning to some degree if they are taken in sufficient dosages. So saying, they are not all lethal. Furthermore, the same substance that triggers symptoms in one person may not necessarily cause Symptoms of Poisoning in someone else. Factors such as body size, age, gender and overall health will generally influence the effect that a particular toxin exerts on the body.

Children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to injury or death from ingesting poisonous substances. Indeed, poisoning is the most common medical emergency involving small children. Children’s natural curiosity causes them to handle and ingest toxic substances. Their small sizes mean that poisons will exert more immediate and potentially more dangerous effects on their bodies.


The elderly are more prone to over-medicating, thus creating toxic responses. They may also have immune systems that are compromised, making it difficult for their bodies to eliminate toxic substances effectively.

How Poisons Affect the Body

A particular poison can impact many parts of the body, or it can affect just one organ. Poisons can cause inflammatory responses such as skin blistering or swelling, tissue damage, convulsions or death. Organs and tissues that are typically affected by poisons include:

- Liver

- Kidneys

- Blood

- Skin

- Central nervous system

- Cardiovascular system

The Body’s Reaction to Poisoning

The body has in-built mechanisms to protect itself from the deleterious effects of toxins: Vomiting and diarrhea are the two mechanisms most widely used by the body to rid itself of toxins. They are part of the fairly universal Signs and Symptoms of Poisoning.


Different Poisons & the Signs and Symptoms of Poisoning


Blood Poisoning

Otherwise known as septicemia, blood poisoning occurs when bacteria from an infection gets into an individual’s bloodstream. It is a potentially life-threatening situation and needs immediate medical attention. Symptoms are quick to appear and they worsen rather rapidly.

The Signs of Poisoning in the blood vary from person to person but generally include:

  • Loss of appetite, listlessness, fever and chills.
  • Areas of skin rashes with small blood spots that spread to form large, purple, bruise-like areas on the body.
  • Mental confusion.
  • A fall in blood pressure.
  • Increased heart rate and rapid breathing.
  • A lack of urination.
  • A lack of consciousness if left untreated.


Food Poisoning

Consuming contaminated foods such as those tainted by salmonella will cause Symptoms of Poisoning that typically include feelings of nausea. This is usually followed by episodes of frequent or prolonged diarrhea as well as vomiting. Diarrhea in newborns and toddlers is a sure sign of food poisoning, which should be treated promptly.

Signs of Poisoning can be immediate or they can appear many days after eating the tainted item. A number of additional symptoms are linked to food poisoning:

  • Excruciating stomach pains and cramps.
  • Excessive sweating, lightheadedness and dizziness.
  • Temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Black, bloody or tar-like stool.
  • An increase or decrease in saliva production.
  • Dehydration.
  • Weakness in muscles or paralysis, indicating the need for immediate treatment.
  • Inability to see or speak properly, which could indicate botulism poisoning.


Alcohol Poisoning

Some people engage in binge-drinking, which is defined as drinking more than five alcoholic beverages in quick succession. This type of drinking increases the risk of alcohol poisoning because the body is not given sufficient time to metabolize the alcohol between drinks. Alcohol poisoning is serious and warrants immediate medical intervention because it can lead to death or irreversible damage to the drinker’s health.

The Symptoms of Poisoning are:

  • Mental confusion or loss of consciousness if the alcohol poisoning is particularly severe.
  • Apparent seizures, indicating that the body is attempting to fight against the alcohol in the bloodstream. In such a case, it is imperative that the drinker's head is protected from harm.
  • Respiratory difficulties that range from slow breathing to breathing that does not follow a consistent pattern. Fewer than eight breaths each minute, or a space of more than 10 seconds between each breath are strong indicators of alcohol poisoning.
  • Vomiting and dehydration. Water consumption should be increased at this point.
  • Feelings of nausea.
  • A damp, clammy feel to the skin, and a pallid or blue complexion.
  • Reduction in body temperature, chills and shivering. It will be important to increase body temperature via additional clothing and the use of blankets.


Arsenic Poisoning

This type of poisoning occurs when the level of arsenic in the body becomes raised. The level can become elevated through drinking water that was obtained from contaminated ground water sources. Another source of arsenic poisoning is through occupational exposure to hazardous materials. This can occur from breathing in the poison or via contact with the skin.

People who reside close to heavily industrialized areas have a greater exposure to arsenics, and are more susceptible to arsenic poisoning. Eating rice can also cause arsenic poisoning. Indeed, levels of arsenic in rice can be higher than the levels found in water. In one particular U.S. study, rice that is grown in the United States averages 260 ppb of arsenic. That number is to be contrasted with the legally-mandated limit of 150 ppb in China, which is the only country in the world to set limits on the amount of arsenic in foods.

Signs of Poisoning include:

  • Headaches, drowsiness, confusion, delirium and vertigo.
  • Shock.
  • Excessive diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Dehydration.
  • Urine that is extremely dark in color.
  • Muscle cramps and convulsions.
  • Stomach pains.
  • Leukonychia: A change in the color of fingernails.
  • Diabetes or heart disease.
  • Night blindness.
  • The destruction of the body’s red blood cells, known as hemolysis.
  • Coma, if treatment is delayed.
  • Death, if left untreated.


How to Respond to the Signs and Symptoms of Poisoning

  1. If poisoning is suspected and breathing has stopped, make sure there is no poison remaining in the individual's mouth before commencing CPR.
  2. Contact the local poison control center or call 911 and act as instructed.
  3. In the case of carbon monoxide poisoning or any other noxious fumes, open all windows and external doors to provide plenty of fresh air. Take the person outdoors if possible.
  4. If poison has been swallowed, it is important to remove any remaining toxins from the mouth.
  5. Do not induce vomiting! When dealing with Signs of Poisoning in children, parents should not use syrup of ipecac. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, syrup of ipecac could make matters worse and should never be kept in the house.
  6. Remove all clothing and wash skin if poison is spilled on clothes.
  7. Flush eyes immediately with cool water if poison gets into the eyes.


While all cases of poisonings should receive medical attention, the Symptoms of Poisoning shown below are particularly life-threatening and warrant immediate treatment:

  • Unconsciousness or extreme sleepiness.
  • Difficulties with breathing.
  • Seizures.
  • Agitation or excessive restlessness.


The Signs and Symptoms of Poisoning should never be downplayed or ignored. Poisons can be destructive to health or life, and immediate medical attention should be sought whenever a case of poisoning is suspected: Telephone 911 or go to the nearest medical emergency facility.


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    • flashmakeit profile image


      6 years ago from usa

      Thank you for the useful article on signs and symptoms of poisoning.


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