Texas Medical Center — Houston, Texas   —   TMC NEWS
  Vol. 21, No. 13  Previous Table of Contents Home  Next July 15, 1999 
Texas' Poison Control Centers Offer Emergency Assistance, Information

The insistent jangle of the telephone calls a sudden halt to the kitchen disinfectant cleaning. Or the front door's chime means the bathroom medicine cabinet overhaul currently in progress will have to wait just a few more minutes.

Just a few minutes.

That's really all it takes a mobile, inquisitive child to investigate a bucket of bleach or an open bottle of medicine.

Just a few minutes.

That's about the time it takes a parent or babysitter to begin to panic, trying to see if the child is injured and figuring out what to do.

"Call 1-800-POISON-1," says Dennis Perrotta, chief of the Bureau of Epidemiology at Texas Department of Health (TDH). That toll-free number will link a caller anywhere in Texas to a regional Poison Control Center. At the answering end will be a nurse or pharmacist - a person specially trained in poison information - to help 24 hours a day, any day of the year.

For more than five years, the centers - set up by the Texas Legislature at sites in Amarillo, Dallas, El Paso, Galveston, San Antonio and Temple - have been supplying assistance and information to people whose poison problems include everything from over-the-counter and prescription drugs to paints, pesticides, chemicals, plants, snake and insect bites.

Callers do not even need to know where their regional office is, Perrotta says. "The system automatically routes the caller to the closest center. But if that center is busy, the call is rolled to another. Callers just need to hang on. They will not get a busy signal."

That's good news to the more than 350,000 callers the system serves yearly; more than half of whom have poison exposure problems. There were 717 poisoning deaths in Texas in 1997, the last year for which complete statistics are available. The question sometimes arises, then, of whether to call the poison control hotline and/or dial 9-1-1 for emergency services.

"Both will work," Perrotta says.

"If the person is unconscious," Perrotta says, "get emergency help right now." Otherwise, he says, phone 1-800-POISON-1 (1-800-764-7661). "These are the poison experts. They will know if someone needs to go to a hospital." For the best help, be able to tell the age and weight of the victim, the substance involved, how much was taken, when the exposure occurred, symptoms, any existing health conditions and your name, telephone number and location.

"The poison specialist can refer the caller to the nearest hospital, if needed, and then call that hospital with the necessary information," Perrotta says. "If the person is treated at home, the center specialist calls back, often as many as three times, to check on the patient."

The main drug exposure calls are about pain relievers such as aspirin, cold and cough preparations, ointments, sedatives and vitamins. Household cleansers, cosmetics, bites, plants and foreign objects bring the most calls about general poison concerns. Other problems arise from common household items such as perfume and after-shave, cosmetics, eye drops, furniture polish, laundry soap, alcoholic beverages and broken plaster.

Poison-proofing a home can begin with locking away potentially harmful products and medications. Store products only in their original containers. Never transfer contents to other containers, especially cups, bottles or dishes. Use child-resistant caps on medications and never give or take medications in the dark. Always put products away immediately after use. And never leave children alone with household products - even for just a few minutes.

The Texas Poison Control Network consists of a specially trained team at each site that includes nurses, pharmacists, paramedics and medical toxicologists who are on call to provide up-to-date information and education. Information also is available in several languages and for the hearing impaired.

About 80 percent of the time the victim does not need to go to the emergency room, saving time and money for the family and the health system. Perrotta says that "estimates show that for every $1 spent on the poison control center, about $7 in treatment cost is saved."


Immediate emergency action for poisoning:

Inhaled poison
Immediately get the person to fresh air. Avoid breathing fumes. Open all doors and windows. If victim is not breathing, start CPR.
Poison on the skin
Remove contaminated clothing and flood the skin with water for 10 minutes. Then wash gently with soap and water and rinse.
Poison in the eye
Flood the eye with lukewarm (not hot) water poured from a large glass held about 3 inches from the eye. Repeat for 15 minutes. Have the person blink as much as possible while flooding the eye. Do not force the eyelid open.
Swallowed poison
Medicines: Do not give anything by mouth until you have called for professional advice. Chemicals or household products: Unless the person is unconscious, having convulsions or cannot swallow, give a glass of water immediately. Then call for professional advice about whether the person should vomit. Have the label ready when you call.
Syrup of ipecac
Always keep a 1-ounce bottle of syrup of ipecac on hand for each child in the house. Use only on advice of the poison control center, emergency medical service or physician.

Call 1-800-POISON-1 (1-800-764-7661) after these steps. Call 9-1-1 for immediate emergency assistance.

- Texas Department of Health

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