Poisoning in Children and older people


More than 28,000 children receive treatment for poisoning, or suspected poisoning accidents every year. The age group 0-4 are most at risk, with boys being more likely to have accidents than girls.

The issue is serious for the over 65’s too with 7,132 cases requiring hospital treatment in 2015/16 (a 9% increase on the year before and 25% increase on the previous year)

We know those requiring hospital treatment are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many thousands of children and older people treated at home and never recorded.

Older people and children are particularly prone to poisoning for different reasons.

Risks to children

Children are likely to have accidents at home as they lack the experience and judgement to recognise risky or toxic situations. In addition, they are extremely inquisitive. Moreover, little ones are oblivious to dangers and may be easily distracted or encouraged by friends or siblings.

Many of the more serious poisoning accidents at home, take place in the kitchen or the bathroom. Medicines, chemical cleaners, household products and some cosmetics are often stored here.

Even everyday items you might not suspect as being harmful can be dangerous to children. For example, it is estimated that liquid laundry detergent cause poisoning of as many as 30 children a day. Doctors have also pointed out the risk of young children getting liquid detergent in their eyes.

Risks to older people

Older people are prone to poisoning too. However the main reasons for them are factors such as poor eyesight, confusion, increased sensitivity to medication, taking multiple medications and increased drug interactions.

For people over-65: 90%  of them take one drug daily and a staggering 12% take 10 or more drugs on a daily basis. Care home residents take 7-8 drugs daily.

In addition, many older people also regularly take non-prescription and over the counter medication. All of these drugs can have interactive effects.

Read on to discover the best way to prevent poisoning and how to respond if you discover someone who is poisoning in either age group.

Poisoning in the Elderly

A poison is any substance (a solid, liquid, or gas) which can cause damage if it enters the body in sufficient quantities. A poison can be swallowed, breathed in, absorbed through the skin or injected.

Some poisons cause an all-over reaction; this can result in seizures, blurred vision, acute anaphylaxis or be fatal.

For older people one of the main problems is their medication and they are also prone to food poisoning.

Carbon Monoxide poisoning is an issue for all age groups and will be covered in a separate article.

Medication Mix Ups

Often older people accidentally ‘poison’ themselves by muddling up their medication. If someone is taking multiple tablets, it is easy to get confused and different medicines can interact with each other and cause adverse reactions.

Read our post on managing medications to help prevent this happening and to gain top tips to make managing medication easier by clicking here 

Please be aware that there are many common foods that interact with medication too and some of these reactions can be extremely serious and possible fatal. Grapefruit is a particular culprit and you can read more here.

Food Poisoning

Another common cause of poisoning in older people is food poisoning. As we get older our sense of smell and taste becomes less acute; use by dates may be small to read and financial constraints and a wish to avoid wastage, may lead us to take risks. Consequently, it is extremely common for older people to suffer from stomach upsets from food that is no longer fit for consumption.

Suspected Poisoning

If you suspect someone has taken a harmful substance, call an ambulance and explain clearly what has happened. They will advise you what to do.

Prevention is the Best Cure
  • Use original containers
  • Never decant medication into a different container at random; use the original which will have a clear label.
  • If the label is no longer readable and you are not sure what is in it, dispose of it carefully.
  • It is important to ensure people needing to take numerous pills are competent with their medication. Pharmacists can often help by simplifying drugs – going to once a day options, helping when medication is difficult to swallow and liaising
  • If necessary pharmacists can help by supplying pre-prepared pill boxes to make it easier for people to take the right medication at the prescribed times.
  • Specially designed pill organisers can be extremely helpful for remembering when and how to take medication. There are new ones available that can alert family members and carers if the medication has not been taken by a set time, or if it has only been partly taken.

If you find someone occupied with their pills or any other potentially poisonous substance, but are unsure they have taken anything, always get them checked!

Poisoning in Children

Prevention is the Best Cure
  • Store medicines and chemicals out of sight and reach of children, preferably in a locked cupboard. This includes laundry detergent capsules, dishwasher tablets, medicines, alcohol, cosmetics, DIY, cleaning and gardening products.
  • Buy products in child resistant containers, but don’t rely on them solely to keep your child safe.
  • Always store chemicals in their original containers to avoid confusion.
  • Dispose of unwanted medicines and chemicals safely.
  • Avoid buying plants with poisonous leaves or berries or those that can irritate the skin. Many decorative plants are toxic. Check plants through the Royal Horticultural Society or by asking your local florist or horticultural nursery.
  • Fit carbon monoxide alarms and have appliances and alarms regularly checked.
  • Keep batteries out of reach of small children and ensure batteries in toys, gadgets and birthday cards are not likely to fall out.
  • Ensure grandparents and visitors are careful about leaving potentially hazardous substances within reach, particularly medication.

Good to know:

The Childhood Accident Prevention Trust and Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents both work tirelessly to prevent accidents in children and their websites are full of really useful tips and advice.

Possible symptoms of poisoning are:
  • A burning sensation in the lips and mouth
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Drowsiness or hyper-mania
  • A change in their heartbeat
First Aid for suspected poisoning:

If someone has swallowed a non-corrosive substance (a product that will not burn them) and seems completely well:

  1. Encourage them to stay calm and still

Moving around will increase their metabolism and speed up the poison circulating around the body.

  1. Try not to be cross or angry with them

They may not tell you what they have taken if they are scared, stressed or feel uncomfortable.

  1. Phone 111 or the poisons unit and get advice from them

If they are showing any adverse symptoms, call an ambulance. It would be dangerous to use your own transport.

For a corrosive substance:

Don’t make them sick – as not only has it burnt on the way down, it will burn again when they vomit it up

Give small sips of milk or water.

Call the emergency services.

If they become unconscious

If the casualty becomes unconscious, open the airway and check for breathing. Be ready to resuscitate if necessary. Use a protective face shield to ensure you don’t put yourself at risk from whatever they have ingested.

Training in First Aid

First Aid for Life provides this information for guidance and it is not in any way a substitute for medical advice. First Aid for Life is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made or actions taken based on this information. The best way to be prepared for action in an emergency is to attend a practical first aid course or do one online.

Emma Hammett
Author: Emma Hammett