Each year in British Columbia over 26,000 poisonings are reported to the B.C. Poison Control Centre. These include both unintentional and intentional poisonings and overdoses. The type of poisons and the approach to poison prevention education depends on the age group involved and the reason for the poisoning.
Poisonings in Young Children
More than half of all poisonings involve young children, with children between one and three years of age at highest risk. The situations are mostly unintentional and are a function of the child’s developmental stage. Young children constantly explore and investigate the world around them.?The types of poisons in this age group are often things that they encounter in their environment (see pie chart). The most common exposures are not necessarily the most toxic. Serious poisoning is more likely to occur when a child ingests an adult-strength medicine or when a parent mistakenly gives extra doses of a medicine over several days.
Seventy-five percent of childhood poisonings involve substances that are in use at the time or are not in their usual storage place. Products with an appealing or familiar-looking package, taste or appearance may be more likely to be ingested by a young child. Disruptions in the daily routine may also contribute to poisonings in children. These include a serious family illness, moving, and having visitors.
Poisonings in Adolescents
The number of poisonings in adolescents is lower than in young children, but the situations are often more serious. Poisonings in adolescents have a much higher rate of hospitalization and death. Almost half of all adolescent poisonings are intentional, either as suicide or substance abuse.
Unintentional poisonings in adolescents can occur when product label instructions are not read and followed, or when products are not stored properly. Poisonings occur every year when adolescents mistakenly drink from a drink bottle or pop can in which someone else has improperly stored a chemical such as paint thinner, brake fluid or antifreeze.
Poisonings in Adults
Unintentional poisonings account for over 70% of poisonings in adults. In addition to someone mistakenly ingesting or being exposed to a chemical or drug, unintentional poisonings include medication dosing errors, occupational exposures, bites and stings, and food poisoning. Unintentional poisonings can occur when medications or chemicals are removed from their original containers and put into unlabelled or mislabeled containers. Mistakes can also be made when chemicals are stored near medicines, or when many outdated medications clutter the medicine cabinet. Adults at higher risk are those who have poor vision, are receiving many medications, or have a drug or alcohol abuse problem.
Although unintentional poisonings represent the majority of poisoning situations in adults, most of the poisoning deaths in adults are a result of intentional self-poisoning. The substances associated with largest number of poisoning deaths include analgesics, sedative hypnotics and antipsychotics, stimulants and street drugs, cardiovascular drugs, alcohols, antihistamines, and anticonvulsants.
Poison Prevention Education
Poison prevention education will vary with the age group and whether the poisoning is unintentional or intentional. Poisoning in young children is usually unintentional and education needs to be delivered to parents, grandparents, or babysitters. Prevention messages include how to poison-proof the home, how to store medicines and chemicals properly, what to do if a poisoning occurs despite prevention efforts, and how to contact the poison control centre.
Poison prevention education for unintentional poisonings in adolescents and adults involves increasing general awareness and limiting risky behaviours. Some behaviours that are risky include transferring pills or chemicals from original containers into unlabelled bottles, storing chemicals near medicines, and not reading product label instructions.
Poison prevention education for intentional poisonings (suicides and substance abuse) requires a multifaceted, multidisciplinary approach and may involve pharmacists, nurses, physicians, social workers, counselors, friends, family, crisis centres, mental health workers, and law enforcement.