Merck Manuals Provides Tips for Identifying and Treating Poisoning

Tuesday, October 18, 2016 Research News
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Toxicology Specialist Debunks Poison Myths and Misconceptions

KENILWORTH, N.J., Oct. 18, 2016 /PRNewswire/ -- Contrary to popular myths, poison doesn't always come in the form of

a tainted red apple or an untraceable dose of ricin in a cup of tea. In reality, most poisonings are caused by exposure to common toxic substances that can easily be found.

With the nation's 55 poison centers receiving more than 2.2 million calls about exposures in 2013 alone, many Americans are taking the right steps following a suspected poisoning. Yet misconceptions about treatment, largely based on outdated practices, still exist – many of which can cause further harm to victims.

Merck Manuals author and toxicology specialist Dr. Gerald O'Malley debunks five common myths about poisoning and shares insight about treatment methods for someone who has been exposed to a poisonous substance on

Myth #1. There's an antidote for most poisons.

Debunked. There are only about 40 different antidotes used in clinical medicine to counteract poisonings from specific substances, and most emergency rooms only stock a portion of them. Less than five in 100 poisoning patients receive an antidote specific to whatever they've been exposed to. One reason for this is that doctors don't know what caused the poisoning and have to piece together the most likely source.

But it's also true that most poisonings, even when the type of poison is known, can be treated effectively without an antidote. In many cases, doctors will address the symptoms resulting from the poisoning while the body eliminates the poison on its own.

Myth #2. Carbon monoxide poisoning usually results in the victim falling unconscious.

Debunked. This is an especially dangerous misconception for many families. The signs of low-level carbon monoxide poisoning are very subtle and often difficult to accurately diagnose. Early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, shortness of breath, fatigue, mood swings and impaired judgment. Many people are evaluated or hospitalized for these symptoms before doctors realize carbon monoxide is the cause, leaving the source of the colorless, odorless gas undetected and its dangerous effects uncorrected. Carbon monoxide poisoning should be thought of whenever many household members, particularly the smallest ones, simultaneously develop vague or flu-like symptoms.

Myth #3. Ipecac and inducing vomiting is an effective way to treat many poisonings.

Debunked. There are serious complications that come with inducing vomiting in a potential poison victim. Ipecac syrup, a medicine once commonly used to induce vomiting, is no longer recommended to be kept in households, and in fact many drug stores don't carry it anymore. This and other methods– like putting a finger down the throat – also have the potential for dangerous unintended consequences and do not increase the success of treatment.

Myth #4. Swallowing poison is always more dangerous than absorbing it through the skin.

Debunked. Topical medications, especially pain patches, can be just as dangerous as ingested pills and are often more potent. These patches offer a huge benefit to patients who have difficulty swallowing pills or remembering to take regular doses. However, even after the recommended usage, there can be up to 75 percent of the medicine remaining on the patch.

Patches also pose a poisoning risk if they're damaged or if they're applied to irritated or broken skin, which can lead to faster absorption of the medication.

Myth #5. Poison control is only for life-threatening poisoning emergencies.

Debunked. Calling the American Association of Poison Control Centers (1 (800) 222-1222) is not like calling 9-1-1. You don't need to be facing a life-threatening emergency to call. In fact, about two percent of hotline calls are about pet poisonings.

The hotline is also a useful resource for identifying unknown pills, and almost 10 percent of calls are for the pill identification service. More than two-thirds of calls don't result in a trip to a doctor or emergency room.

If you suspect you or anyone else is suffering from a possible poisoning, do not hesitate to call the hotline. The call is free and confidential, and you'll be connected directly to a poison specialist who is a registered nurse or pharmacist. The specialist will ask for information including the patient's age, presence of symptoms, weight, health history, and details of the possible poisoning.

About The Merck Manuals

First published in 1899 as a small reference book for physicians and pharmacists, The Merck Manual grew in size and scope to become one of the world's most widely used comprehensive medical resources for professionals and consumers. As The Manual evolved, it continually expanded the reach and depth of its offerings to reflect the mission of providing the best medical information to a wide cross-section of users, including medical professionals and students, veterinarians and veterinary students, and consumers. In 2015, The Merck Manual kicked off Global Medical Knowledge 2020, a program to make the best current medical information accessible by up to three billion professionals and patients around the world by 2020. For access to thousands of medical topics with images, videos and a constantly expanding set of resources, visit and connect with us on social media:

For Consumers in the U.S. and its territories: Twitter and FacebookFor Professionals in the U.S. and its territories: Twitter and Facebook

About Merck

Today's Merck is a global health care leader working to help the world be well. Merck is known as MSD outside the United States and Canada. Through our prescription medicines, vaccines, biologic therapies and animal health products, we work with customers and operate in more than 140 countries to deliver innovative health solutions. We also demonstrate our commitment to increasing access to health care through far-reaching policies, programs and partnerships. For more information, visit and connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn.

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