Poisoning: what you need to know

Accidents with poisons usually happen at home, and they’re generally unexpected. Suddenly your child can open a bottle or reach a cupboard you thought was safe.

This means you need to be on the look-out and plan ahead as your child develops new skills.

Many substances around the home are actually household poisons. Also, a lot of things become poisonous when they’re not used in the way they’re intended. Once you’re aware of substances that are – or that might be – dangerous, it’s easier to protect your child.

Medicines can poison too. In fact, they’re the most common cause of poisoning in young children, accounting for 70% of all cases of child poisoning. Almost all medicines are poisonous if taken in large enough doses – this even includes vitamin pills and herbal remedies.

If you or a child in your care might have swallowed something poisonous, immediately take the container and the child to the phone and call the Poisons Information Centre on 131 126 for first aid advice – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Australia wide.

Preventing poisoning

The first step in preventing poisoning is storing medicines, chemicals and cleaners up high in a locked cupboard, safely out of reach and out of sight of your child. The cupboard should be at least 1.5 m high and should have child-resistant locks.

Using and storing medicines, chemicals and cleaners: general tips

  • Before your child starts moving and climbing, make sure all dangerous items are out of reach.
  • Lock medicines, chemicals and cleaners away in their storage place immediately after you’ve finished with them.
  • Always store medicines, household cleaners, chemicals and poisons in child-resistant containers or locked cupboards that your child can’t open.
  • Leave all chemicals, medicines and cleaning products in their original containers. Never transfer poisons into food or drink containers. Don’t put chemicals like detergents, paint thinners and weed killers into empty soft drink or juice bottles.
  • Clean out your chemicals cupboard regularly. Get rid of unwanted chemicals and cleaning products. Rinse empty chemical containers with water before you throw them out.

Medicine use and storage: extra tips

  • If your child needs to take medicine, read the label, dosage and instructions carefully. Double-check everything before you give your child the medicine. If you’re not sure about how much to give or for how long, ask your doctor or pharmacist.
  • Set up a ‘checking system’ with your partner to avoid giving your child double doses of medicine.
  • Avoid distractions when giving your child medicines. If possible, have a normal routine for giving or taking medicines. And always supervise your child while she’s taking medicine.
  • Ask your pharmacist to put child-resistant caps on your medicines if they’re not already on the bottle. Make sure you always put the caps back on the bottles immediately and correctly after use.
  • Clean out your medicine cupboard regularly. Get rid of unwanted and out-of-date medicines and other poisons. You can return unwanted medicines to your local pharmacist for safe disposal.
  • Rinse empty medicine containers with water before you throw them out.
  • Refer to medicines by their proper names, rather than calling them ‘special lollies’.

Other tips

  • Take extra care if your family has recently moved, is on holiday or is visiting friends. The chances of childhood poisoning increase when usual household routines are disrupted.
  • When friends come to visit, make sure their bags are out of your child’s reach, because the bags might contain medicines.

There are different poisoning risks at each new stage of your child’s development, as your child learns to reach and move more. These developmental changes can happen quickly, so planning ahead helps avoid risks.

Everyday items like oven cleaners, drain cleaners and dishwashing powders can poison your child. Make sure all medicines and household chemicals are kept in a child-resistant cupboard. You can put child-resistant locks on most cupboards.

Poisoning facts

The eight most common calls to the Victorian Poisons Information Centre are about:

  • paracetamol
  • cough and cold preparations
  • rat and mouse baits
  • all-purpose/hard-surface cleaners
  • silica gel
  • oral contraceptives
  • ibuprofen
  • dishwashing detergents.