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It is a rare occurrence to have kids intentionally ingest something they know to be harmful to them. No kid is looking for a tummy-ache or trip to the emergency room. Rather, almost all accidental poisonings in children follow a similar script:

A Look at How Child Poisonings Happen

A) Child discovers something they assume is edible, and then

B) Parent discovers child consuming something they shouldn’t and reacts with the expected shock and horror, which is

C) Matched by equal shock/confusion on the part of the child. The bottom line is that the recurrent theme is that a lack of knowledge on the child’s part plays the primary role in accidental poisonings, and that means there is room for safety improvements.

Why children eat poisonous things

There are several reasons that a child might consume something poisonous:


  1. Mistaken identity: A child mistakes a poison for something else: Medicine capsules are mistaken for candy; an 8-year-old drinks Tiki lamp fuel after mistaking it for apple juice; an alcoholic beverage is mistaken for Kool-Aid. Mistaken identity is a common source of poisoning among older kids, and you’d be amazed at how often toxic items can look similar to other food or beverage products.


  1. Exploration: When encountering something new, infants and toddlers instinctually put it in their mouth to explore. This tendency diminishes in older children, but it never really goes away, especially if you’re dealing with something that looks edible, like a brightly colored liquid or rat poisoning pellets.


  1. Mimicry: A child mimics a behavior they see adults doing. This is a common theme in alcohol poisoning and the ingestion of medication. The child discovers the item and, not understanding the danger, wants to be like mommy or daddy or grandpa and act just like they do. Many people do not realize just how powerful the drive for mimicry is in children. Much in the same way they get satisfaction out of playing house, getting the opportunity to mimic adults in what they do is a pleasurable experience, and can have the same allure to a child that a piece of candy might.


  1. Pica: Pica is an eating disorder that drives people to crave otherwise inedible items. (You might have seen it dramatized on shows such as TLC’s Strange Addiction,’ which depicted women who ate toilet paper or dish detergent compulsively.) This condition is especially common in children, estimated to affect up to 30% of young children. Thus, a preschooler may be found chowing down on something an adult finds icky, disgusting or just plain weird. (Think about kids eating glue or paint as an example.) In childhood, pica is less a disorder and more of a general phase that 99.9% of kids will grow out of, but it still makes for a tumultuous time for parents, who must stay extra vigilant. Making matters worse, not all poisons, such as antifreeze, taste bad. Kids may find some dangerous things palatable.

What to do if you suspect a child has been poisoned:

  1. Grab the package and/or pill container, if you can find it, or lacking that, a sample of whatever your child has been eating. Having the package or a sample ready can help poison control identify the toxin and determine the proper course of action. If a child is unconscious and/or convulsing, skip poison control and just call 911 directly.
  2. If they still seem normal and coherent, call poison control first. Poison control will help you asses the problem and advise you on what to do next. A national poison control number is 1-800-222-1222.
  3. It is no longer recommended that parents self-administer Ipecac syrup, since it often does more harm than good. It has been known to cause seizures, and certain types of poison could do more harm coming back up again than they would in the stomach. Recent studies have also suggested that its benefits after a poisoning are minimal. If you would like to keep a bottle on hand just in case, you are free to do so, but DO NOT ADMINISTER IPECAC SYRUP UNLESS EXPLICITLY INSTRUCTED TO DO SO BY POISON CONTROL.

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