Please note that this information does not qualify you as an official first aider, and Virtual College advise calling 999 in the first instance at the scene of an emergency.
This material and any associated assessments do not constitute a qualification or accreditation as an official first aider. All content provided is for general information only.
Virtual College advocate dialling the emergency services before attempting any form of first aid.
A person is poisoned when they ingest one or more substances that causes damage to their body in some way. This can range from fairly mild cases of sickness, to very severe bodily harm and even death. In many cases, it is essential that you seek professional medical help immediately, as there are many forms of poisoning, and a vast amount of treatments. There are however some first aid considerations that can help you identify someone who has been poisoned, how to manage the situation and help medical professionals swiftly identify the best course of action. In this article, we’re going to go through these best practices when it comes to first aid for poisoning, and cover some of the specific cases of poisoning that you are most likely to encounter.
Different types of poison will have differing effects on the human body. We’ll cover some of the specific symptoms for common types of poisoning later in the article, but there are some primary ones that you should be aware of. These are usually present in more severe cases of poisoning, and knowing them will help you to recognise someone who may have ingested poison.
If someone is displaying any of these symptoms, and you suspect they might have mild poisoning but does not appear to be seriously ill, then it may be appropriate to simply call the NHS on 111 for further advice on what to do.
If you believe the situation is more serious however, then it is imperative that you call 999 immediately.
If the person is conscious, then you should stay with them until you receive further advice from medical professionals or the emergency services. If they have swallowed something, then help them to spit out anything that might still be in their mouth. Move anything potentially harmful away from them, and if there are hazardous substances still present on their clothes, then remove them. Use water to wash off anything on their skin.
If the person you suspect of poisoning is unconscious, then the first aid process is slightly different. Your first action must be to try and wake the person, to see if you can help them spit out anything that is still in their mouth. If this is not possible, then you should immediately place them into the recovery position which will help ensure they do not choke if they vomit whilst unconscious. You must not try to put your fingers in their mouth, or attempt to give them anything to eat or drink.
Read our article on how to put someone in the recovery position to learn more about this potentially life-saving technique.
Some of the most common types of poisoning include the following:
Alcohol poisoning is not uncommon, but can in some cases be extremely serious. Conscious sufferers of alcohol poisoning can usually be identified through slurred speech, confusion, vomiting and disorientation, along with physical symptoms such as a very strong heartbeat, a reddened face and deep breathing. Unconscious sufferers may have more shallow breathing and a weaker heart rate. As in the previous section, they should be placed into the recovery position and emergency attention sought.
Prescription, over-the-counter and illegal drugs can all be poisonous in differing circumstances, and death is a potential consequence even with fairly common drugs such as paracetamol. Given the wide range of potential symptoms, it is not always easy to identify those with drug-related poisoning, but there are still some key things to look out for. This includes signs that they have ingested something, such as nausea, vomiting and stomach pains, along with activity such as deliriousness, hyperactivity and confusion, or physical symptoms such as a particularly slow or fast pulse.
It is imperative that you gather as much information as you can for when paramedics arrive, as this will help them identify the best course of action. Examining the scene for discarded drug containers or packets can be useful. Beyond that, placing the person in the recovery position is the best thing you can do.
Food poisoning can be quite common, and is only serious in fairly rare cases. It can make a person feel very ill, but that does not necessarily mean that they require medical attention; in the vast majority of food poisoning cases, the person will recover by themselves. The best thing that you can do is to encourage them to drink plenty of water. Fluids can be rapidly lost through vomiting and diarrhoea, which will make them feel much worse and could cause further problems.
There are of course many different types of poisoning that are not covered in this article. This includes things like carbon monoxide poisoning, eating wild poisonous plants or fruit and coming into contact with hazardous chemicals in the workplace. If you work, live, or conduct activities in a place where you know there may be poisonous substances present, then ensure that you understand the risks.
For more information on how Virtual College can help you deal with first aid situations that may not be immediately clear, then visit our Primary Survey course page here.