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Could Grandma Be a Toxicologist ?

Posted: June 8th, 2010 | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

By Erin Pallasch, PharmD and IPC call center specialist

We all know that when something really frightening happens to a child, the first person we are most likely to turn to for advice is Grandma.  Whether it is our real grandmother or a friend/relative surrogate grandmother, she is always available with soothing words and the best advice that she has been doling out since we were babies ourselves. But while Grandma always has the best intentions, and is great to help calm us down, is Grandma really a poison specialist?

Some people always look to these well meaning friends and relatives who have no medical training, but always seem to have an antidote for life’s little hiccups.  At the poison center, we often get calls from worried parents or caregivers who have already called Grandma or another family member or friend for advice when there is a potentially poisonous exposure. The best advice I have heard given from Grandma is: “Call the Poison Center”. Luckily, 90% of the time, the ingestion/exposure is not toxic and a few sips of water and a kiss on the forehead is the only treatment necessary. 

However, when parents or caregivers attempt decontamination or an antidote with ‘old world’ or home remedies, it  may  cause more harm than good.  Forcing a child to vomit may cause them to choke and force substances into their lungs, causing a pneumonia-like condition requiring hospitalization and intensive care monitoring. Other remedies such as salt water or baking soda can be extremely dangerous. We were called on a case where a child ingested a single tablet of a medication, which by itself was not harmful. Unfortunately, as many people will do, the caregiver panicked and then tried to “do something” about the situation and gave the child several spoonfuls of baking soda in attempt to ‘neutralize the poison’. Sadly, the child eventually died from baking soda poisoning.

Another recent well-meaning caller administered salt water to his child as an antidote (again, after a non-toxic ingestion). When I questioned his methods, the father tried to assure me that it is an “old world remedy” and everyone does it. As luck would have it they had only gotten a few drops in the child with a medicine dropper; and by the time I got the call, I was able to dissuade them from using any more. I made several follow up phone calls over the few next hours to monitor for symptoms of salt poisoning and luckily, the child did just fine.

Another famous cure-all is milk. Not just drinking milk either, we’ve had folks rinse out their eyes with it too!  Once, a parent called after a child’s skin was exposed to a potentially harmful substance but was unworried because Grandma “milked him down” after the exposure.  

Another poison misconception many people have is the thought that chemical exposures should be neutralized. For example, the problem: an acid spill to the skin; the solution:  just pour a base on it. Please Don’t. This actually results in an even worse burn; not only do you have the acid burn, but now a base burn AND a thermal burn due to the thermal reaction given off by the neutralization process.

Other home remedies (and results) include:

  • Baby bottles filled with garlic and onions. (You can imagine how much gas and discomfort this may cause to a child).
  • An egg cracked over a child’s head. (This was a child who was allergic to eggs, but the caregiver thought that since he wasn’t eating them it would be okay.  The child’s face and eyes swelled up from the egg).
  • Feeding the poison victim a half a stick of butter (Not my idea of a tasty meal)
  • Rinsing out an eye with Ipecac after an ocular exposure
  • Giving the child nail polish remover as an antidote after the child was found sucking on the brush of nail polish.
  • Last but not least, the infamous, ‘I stuck my finger down his throat to make him vomit’.  Check out our  syrup of ipecac  blog  for reasons why we don’t induce vomiting in general, but there have been reports of serious injury to the back of the throat when this technique is used.

 Another thing that parents or caregivers often do is, “wait for symptoms” before they call.  Many people think poisoning is like it is in the movies, and if the victim doesn’t drop dead in minutes after the exposure, all is well. This is not the case; it is most often not that dramatic. Many symptoms may be delayed; and delaying treatment until symptoms appear can result in more severe effects. Additionally, it can be more difficult to stop a process once it gets to the point where symptoms are apparent. I have had calls from parents days after the child has done something and they haven’t slept because they are afraid of what it may cause. Meanwhile they have been reading horror stories on the internet about what COULD happen. Why make yourself crazy for days when you can get the proper information within minutes by calling the poison center? The IPC is staffed 24 hours a day by physicians, pharmacists, nurses and other health care professionals specially trained to handle your situation… No issue too big or small, just call!

So, if you or someone you love is exposed to a potentially harmful substance, don’t delay, call the Poison Center immediately before attempting anything heroic.  As our chief specialist Tony has wisely said, “Do nothing, and nothing will happen”.

Or if you have called the IPC and would like to share your story, we’d love to hear it! Tell us about it  here.

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2 Comments on “Could Grandma Be a Toxicologist ?”

  1. 1 Guzzo said at 10:06 pm on June 8th, 2010:

    OMG..I can’t believe anyone would instill ipecac into someone’s eye.

    True story.. way back in the 1960’s, an elderly babysitter once poured melted hot butter from the cooking pan directly into my younger brother’s ear to treat an earache. BIG mess!

  2. 2 Illinois Poison Center Blog » Blog Archive » Take Home Lessons Kids and Cleaning Product Spray Bottles said at 1:44 pm on August 10th, 2010:

    […] the emergency department or can be treated at home with simple first aid.  Never give your child home remedies or antidotes in the event they (or you believe) ingest a potentially harmful substance; often times it can do […]


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