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Swallowed substance

5-minute read

If you (or a child in your care) have swallowed something from a packet or container, find a label of the substance or product. Take the container and the child to the phone and call the Poisons Information Line on 13 11 26 (24 hours a day from anywhere in Australia).

What is a swallowed substance?

Common household and garden products are often swallowed by accident. Most of these are considered to be of low toxicity when swallowed and are not likely to cause any significant harm, but there are still many products that are potentially harmful.

Some common substances that are swallowed include:

  • cleaning products
  • bleach
  • paints or paint cleaning products
  • make-up and cosmetics
  • plant food
  • ink
  • air fresheners or aromatherapy oils
  • medicines

When should I call an ambulance/go to the emergency department?

If you suspect that someone has taken an overdose or has been poisoned do not try to treat them yourself. Get medical help immediately.

If the person is showing signs of being seriously ill, such as vomiting, loss of consciousness, drowsiness or seizures (fits), call triple zero (000) for an ambulance, or take the person to the closest emergency department.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — Our Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

What should I do while waiting for the ambulance?

If the poisoned person has collapsed or is not breathing, start resuscitation.

Wash the substance off the face with water.

Take a photo of the label or note down the product details.

Do not eat or drink anything unless you have been advised to do so on the package instructions.

Do not to try to make yourself vomit as this could cause choking or block your airway.

What are the warning signs/symptoms of a swallowed substance?

The signs of a swallowed substance depend on the substance. They may include:

  • the smell of the substance on the person’s breath
  • burns around and inside the mouth or on the tongue
  • burning pain from mouth to stomach
  • nausea, vomiting
  • tummy pain
  • breathing problems
  • chest tightness
  • headache
  • hearing and vision changes
  • blueness on the lips, face, earlobes, fingernails
  • drowsiness
  • loss of consciousness
  • a seizure

The symptoms may be immediate, but with some substances they may be delayed, sometimes for several days.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our swallowed or inhaled substances Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes a swallowed substance?

It is common for children to swallow substances. You might not realise they can reach a cupboard, or that something you left in their reach (like a medicine or washing up liquid) is poisonous. Children may swallow a substance if they are not properly supervised, there are visitors in the house with medicines, or when they learn to crawl or walk.

Sometimes substances may be swallowed accidentally, for example, if they are stored in containers like drink bottles.

Adults may swallow too much of, or the wrong medicine by mistake, drink too much alcohol or swallow a dangerous substance at work.

Some people may swallow substances deliberately to harm or injure themselves. If you have done this, you should know you are not alone and help is available. Please discuss this with a healthcare professional.

Find out more about self-harm.

Suspicion of deliberate harm

If there is any suspicion that the poisoning was not the result of an accident and that it was deliberately inflicted, you should seek help from a healthcare professional as soon as possible. This could be a nurse or doctor at an emergency department, doctor’s surgery, health visitor or school nurse.

You can also search for local services and agencies that can offer confidential advice in the National Health Services Directory.

How is a swallowed substance diagnosed?

A doctor will examine you and discuss what the substance was. They may do a blood test, urine test or an x-ray and will monitor you closely.

It is very helpful if you can provide them any information you can, including details of the product, a sample of any vomit, the container or a suicide note if applicable.

How is a swallowed substance treated?

Treatment depends on the substance taken. It may include giving you an antidote to the substance if there is one, flushing the stomach out with water or giving you activated charcoal to prevent the substance from being absorbed through the gut into your bloodstream. Rarely, the contents of the stomach may be emptied.

Can a swallowed substance be prevented?

Many household substances are poisonous if swallowed. It is very important to store all medicines, chemicals and cleaners in a high, locked cupboard out of sight and reach of children.

Here are some tips on how to keep your medicines stored safely:

  • Try to keep medicine in its original packaging, as this will include the ingredients, dosage instructions and expiry date.
  • A medicine cabinet is a good place for storage. It should be high enough off the ground that children cannot access the cabinet or its contents. Ideally, it should be at least 150 cm off the ground, with a lock.
  • Take medicines that you don’t need anymore, or that are out of date, to your local pharmacy and they will dispose of them safely.

Complications of a swallowed substance

Some swallowed substances can be highly toxic or can burn your gut or airway. They can affect your heart, blood pressure and breathing, and can lead to problems with organs including the kidneys and liver.

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Last reviewed: December 2019


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