Berlin - The average home contains more poisons than most people realise. They are to be found in cleaning materials and toxic plants, in the medicine chest and the drinks cabinet and even in food that has gone off.
Emergency rooms are constantly confronted by the elderly lady with the failing eyesight who has used her nail varnish remover as a mouthwash, the small child who has swallowed a couple of “sweets” from mom's store of medicines or the teenager easing a broken heart by resorting to dad's favourite whisky.
“We have to deal with a wide range of poisoning cases every day, and a large part of them take place in the home environment,” says Daniela Acquarone of the emergency call centre in Berlin.
“If you want to be precise, nothing is harmless. Every substance can be poisonous in the right dose, even water,” according to Peter Sefrin of the association of German emergency doctors. Drinking too much water in a brief space of time can disrupt essential salt levels in the body and even lead to death in extreme cases.
Water poisoning is a tiny part of the 200,000 cases of poisoning in Germany each year. Much the same is true for cases of snakebite and mushroom poisoning.
Poisoning resulting from food, exhaust gases and alcohol are much more common, along with accidents linked to household cleaning materials, toiletries and the like.
“These often result in poisoning, especially among children, because they see them as ready to eat or drink as a result of their appearance or smell,” says Thomas Zilker, a professor of toxicology at Munich's Technical University.
Medications remain the lead cause, however, being responsible for the majority of poisoning cases among adults and also a major cause among children. “Cases of medication poisoning among adults are usually attempted suicides, while with children they are accidental - because they think they're sweets,” Zilker says.
The seriousness and danger associated with a case of poisoning depends on a number of factors, including the nature of the substance, the dosage and the length of time that the victim has been exposed to it. A person's physical constitution and the way the substance has been absorbed by the victim also play a role.
“For example, it is less dangerous for a small child to eat a cigarette than for it to drink liquid in which cigarette butts have been soaking overnight,” Acquarone says, explaining that the nicotine - a strong poison - is then in dissolved form and can be absorbed more easily.
“Depending on the nature of the poison and the way it has been absorbed, any organ in the body can be affected and harmed,” Sefrin says.
Breathing in chlorine vapour can lead to lung problems, while an overdose of paracetamol attacks the liver, and ingesting a poisonous mushroom could lead to heart failure.
As a result there is no unmistakable key symptom that points to poisoning . And only rarely is there a specific indication that reveals the cause - such as the distended pupils, rapid pulse and flushed head associated with deadly nightshade plants.
“Frequently the symptoms are nausea, vomiting, headache, breathing difficulties, circulatory problems and delirium,” Acquarone says. Apart from these, there is a wide range of symptoms resulting from poisoning.
This makes it difficult to diagnose a case of poisoning. But there are signs that should sound the alarm: sudden appearance of symptoms amid otherwise good health and symptoms occurring in several people in a group at the same time, whether they worked together or ate together.
Evidence in the surroundings, like an empty pill bottle or theremains of a poisonous plant, should be taken into account.
No attempt should be made to deal with poisoning without expert advice. Milk - often seen as alleviating poisoning - can in certain cases exacerbate the symptoms. Making people vomit could result in blocking their air passages and cause breathing difficulties.
Sefrin advises an immediate phone call to seek professional advice, providing details such as the age, sex, and weight of the victim along with precise details on their symptoms. The suspected poison, the size of the dose and the time of ingestion are also crucial.
Should the victim be unconscious, the emergency services must be called immediately. - Sapa-dpa
* In South Africa, the Red Cross Children’s Hospital poison line can be reached on 021 689 5227.