The Top 3 Substances Involved in IPC Poisoning Cases

The IPC receives calls on almost 74,000 exposure calls per year on a wide variety of different substances—medicines, household cleaners, plants/mushrooms, chemicals, bug bites and stings, food poisoning, recreational drugs, environmental toxins and more.  If it’s potentially harmful, you can call the IPC about it!  A common question we get is, “What substances do you get called on the most?”  Here are the top 3:

  1. Analgesics (Pain relievers)       10,975 exposure calls in 2012

This group of medicines includes everything from over-the-counter (OTC) acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen and aspirin to prescription opioid painkillers (like Oxycontin and morphine) and everything in between.  People can be exposed to analgesics for pretty much any and every reason you can think of:

  • Unintentional pediatric ingestion—kids getting into parents or grandparents meds
  • Medication error—double dose, took too many by mistake thinking they were another med, etc
  • Self-Harm ingestion (intentional overdose)
  • Recreational use/Abuse—in addition to treating pain, opioid medicines cause a euphoric effect (for example, heroin is also in the opioid class)
  • Withdrawal—if you’ve ever seen movies such as Basketball Diaries, Trainspotting, or Requiem for a Dream you have an idea of what opioid withdrawal can do.
  • Adverse effects (side effects)

What is scary is that analgesics (both OTC and prescription) can be very dangerous in an overdose.  Acetaminophen trashes the liver, aspirin poisons your brain and fills your lungs up with fluid, and opioids can cause you to stop breathing.  When it comes to poisoning deaths, every year more people die from analgesics than from any other class of poison (CDC and AAPCC data).  Proper use of these medications can improve quality of life for those in pain, but taking too much (especially for non-medical or recreational use) is a growing problem in the US.


  1. Sedative Hypnotics and Antipsychotics     6,581 exposure calls in 2012

This group of prescription medicines includes an assortment of drugs that act on the brain. Sedative Hypnotics include benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax, and sleeping pills like Ambien.  They can cause coma and even a decrease in breathing in large doses.  Antipsychotics include drugs like Abilify, Seroquel, and Zyprexa. In addition to causing severe drowsiness or coma, these meds can cause heart problems in an overdose.


  1. Cosmetics and Personal Care Products     6,518 exposure calls in 2012

Make-up, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, diaper cream, lotion, sunscreen, nail polish, mouthwash and more.  This category encompasses many things we all have in our homes.  Most of these calls involve kids under age 6:  a naturally curious bunch who and will put just about anything in their mouth.  They may see mommy putting make-up on her face and want to give it a whirl or they get a whiff of hairspray that smells fruity and think it is a tasty beverage.  Luckily, most of these products are minimally toxic in small, mouthful ingestions.  (For more info on toxicity of household substances, check out our My Child Ate… resource on our website).

It may surprise you that 2 of the 3 top called-on substances are medications.  When most people think of a ‘poison’, they tend to think of things like cyanide, arsenic and carbon monoxide.   In fact, medication is the class of ‘poison’ we get called about the most.  51,309 out of our total of 73,998 exposure calls for 2012 were due to drugs and medications—that’s over two thirds!  Medicines can do wonderful things for many people.  They have helped us live longer and live a better quality of life.  However, medicines and drugs are powerful things.  We should all respect that power.  Here are some ways to do that:

  • Know the names and dosages of all medicines you are taking (OTC and prescription).  If there are children in the house, know this info for ALL medicines in your home.
  • Know why you are taking each medicine and what health condition it is treating.  If you feel the medicine is not working as you expected OR you are having significant side effects, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.  Tinkering with your medicine regimen on your own can set you up for problems.
  • Keep all medications locked out of sight and reach of children.  Be careful of purses or bags brought in by visitors.
  • Never take or give medicine in the dark.  Read the label every time, before taking or giving medicine (those prescription bottles look all alike!)
  • If you have unused medicine left over, dispose of it properly.
  • Always keep the IPC’s number 1-800-222-1222 posted in your home and programmed into your cell phone.  Call us right away if someone might have taken too much or the wrong medicine.

Til next time,


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