Help! My child swallowed something poisonous!

by Laurel Pretorius
More children in South Africa ingest poison than we realise, so as parents we should be ready to act quickly in the event of a poisoning
Reading Time: 4 minutes

More children in South Africa ingest poison than we realise, so as parents we should be ready to act quickly in the event of a poisoning, writes Laurel Pretorius.

Children ingesting poisonous substances stands at double the rate in South Africa next to the rest of the world. The figures are highest among boy toddlers (aged 2 to 3) perhaps because of their explorative natures at this age.

The most ingested poison in children is medications and according to ChildSafe a non-profit injury prevention unit based at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, at least 6 children die every month from poisoning. 

So, it goes without saying that we firstly we need to childproof our homes by putting all potentially poisonous substances out of reach and we get to know the signs, symptoms and steps to take in the event of our kids being accidently poisoned.

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Recognising signs and symptoms

First things first, as alarming as the situation is, when your child ingests a poisonous substance, try to remain as calm as possible because swift action is essential. Here’s what to look out for if you think your child has swallowed something poisonous:

  • Nausea and vomiting. Poisoning often triggers upset stomachs, leading to frequent bouts of nausea and vomiting. Sudden vomiting without an apparent cause could signal poisoning.
  • Abdominal pain. Toxic substances can irritate the digestive system, causing abdominal pain. If your child complains of stomach cramps or discomfort seemingly out of the blue, take it seriously.
  • Dizziness and confusion. Some poisons affect the central nervous system, resulting in dizziness and confusion. Watch for signs of disorientation or difficulty maintaining balance.
  • Difficulty breathing. Certain poisons can induce respiratory distress. If your child experiences sudden breathing difficulties or develops wheezing, poisoning may be the cause.
  • Your child may experience sudden, uncontrollable shaking or twitching of the muscles. This can be accompanied by rigidity, where the child’s body stiffens.
  • Severe throat pain. Your child may experience intense pain in the throat and find it difficult to swallow or speak. This pain can be accompanied by drooling or a reluctance to eat or drink.
  • Burns on the lips or mouth – Visible burns, blisters, or sores may appear on your child’s lips or inside the mouth. These burns can cause them to have difficulty eating, drinking, or even opening their mouth.
  • Unconsciousness – Your child may become unresponsive and fail to react to stimuli like loud noises or gentle shaking. Their breathing may become shallow, and their pulse could grow weak or irregular.

It’s important to keep in mind that symptoms can vary depending on the poison and the amount ingested. On top of this, some substances may not immediately show symptoms. This means that vigilance is everything, and seeking medical help as quickly as possible is imperative if you think your child has ingested something poisonous.

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What to do in 7 steps if your child has swallowed something poisonous:

In the event of a poisoning emergency involving your child, follow these steps calmly, immediately and efficiently:

  1. Remove the poison

Check that your child isn’t still clutching the poison in their fist or has any left inside their mouth – remove all of the poisonous substance immediately.

  1. Call an ambulance

Phone your local emergency number immediately. Provide all relevant information, including your child’s age, the substance ingested, and any visible symptoms.

  1. Call the experts

You should already be storing the POISONS INFORMATION HELPLINE number in your phone as you read this. It is 0861 555 777. They operate 24/7. Call the number as soon as you suspect your child has swallowed poison.

  1. Stay calm and assess.

While waiting for help, observe your child carefully for signs of distress. Look for symptoms such as difficulty breathing, vomiting, seizures, or loss of consciousness.

  1. Do NOT induce vomiting.

Unless instructed by medical professionals or a poison control centre, refrain from inducing vomiting. Some substances can cause further harm if brought back up.

  1. Do first aid.

Provide appropriate first aid based on the type of poisoning. Keep your child calm and reassure them. Rinse any substance off the skin with running water. If they ingested something, offer small sips of water to dilute the substance, unless advised otherwise by medical professionals.

  1. Take the poison with to casualty

If you know what your child ingested, take it with you to the hospital so that it can be immediately identified by the medical staff treating them.

Again, every poisoning case is unique. Follow the guidance of medical professionals or poison control centres. Stay on the line with emergency services until help arrives, as they may provide further instructions specific to your child’s condition.

Remember that your child may be in a lot of pain and discomfort. This can cause them to panic. Keep calm and be there for them. Let them know you love them, and everything will be okay. Comfort them.

Good to know

Some dangerous substances take a while to take effect so don’t assume that your child is okay because there hasn’t been a reaction just after ingesting the poison.

Note that an overdose of paracetamol should be considered as a potential poisoning.

Children can even overdose on vitamins and minerals if they ingest enough of them.

If your child doesn’t have any of the serious symptoms listed above, call your poison control centre anyway and play it safe. Here is the number again: POISONS INFORMATION HELPLINE (24HRS) – 0861 555 777.

Experts at the poison centre will need to know information like:

  • Your child’s approximate weight.
  • Any medical conditions.
  • Any medications they are taking.
  • A description of the poison.

To learn how to administer first aid on your child in the case of any future accidents, watch the St John Online Ambulance videos and learn from the series.

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