Poisoning Basics

Manila Bulletin, March 12, 2011 | Go to article overview

Poisoning Basics


"My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,"

- John Keats (1795-1821), English Romantic poet

"Ode to a Nightingale" (1819)

MANILA, Philippines - John Keats would have known that hemlock was both a drug and a poison for he was both a surgeon and a poet. In fact, I will want to think that he had Socrates in mind. Dying by hemlock was the great philosopher's punishment for "corrupting the minds" of Athenian youth. This brings us to poisoning, ingested willfully or by accident, the effects of which are myriad.

Definition. Poisoning is defined as "the harmful effect that occurs when a toxic substance is swallowed, is inhaled, or comes in contact with the skin, eyes, or mucous membranes, such as those of the mouth or nose" (Merck Manual). This means that almost any substance taken incorrectly or in excess can become toxic. Examples are over-the-counter drugs (paracetamol, acetaminophen) or prescription drugs (benzodiazepines, heart medications, etc.), and, of course, illegal drugs, carbon monoxide in vehicle exhausts, household products like detergents and furniture polish, pesticides, and metals like lead and mercury.

First aid. The first rule for the first aider is NOT to get poisoned himself. The US National Institutes of Health website tells us what to do in cases of swallowed poison:

For poisoning by swallowing: "Check and monitor the person's airway, breathing, and pulse. If necessary, begin rescue breathing and CPR. Try to make sure that the person has indeed been poisoned. It may be hard to tell. Some signs include chemical-smelling breath, burns around the mouth, difficulty breathing, vomiting, or unusual odors on the person. If possible, identify the poison. Do NOT make a person throw up unless told to do so by poison control or a health care professional. If the person vomits, clear the person's airway. Wrap a cloth around your fingers before cleaning out the mouth and throat. …

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