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Using Poison Control Centers

Poison control centers can save lives -- keep the phone number handy.

Using Poison Control Centers

Watch Out!

If your child is unconscious, having seizures, not breathing properly, or has other serious symptoms, call 911 to summon an ambulance. If you have the poison container, take it with you to the hospital so the contents can be identified.

Most cases of poison ingestion are treatable, but quick action is required. That's why every part of the country now has 24-hour-a-day phone access to one of the country's 75 poison control centers.

Poison centers are staffed by doctors, nurses, and pharmacists, and most problems can be handled over the phone. Center staff will instruct you about what to do, and they'll keep in touch with you by phone to be sure everything is okay. If they advise you to take your child to the hospital, they'll call ahead and let the doctors and nurses know you are coming and what treatment is needed.

Don't hesitate to phone the nearest poison center if you have the slightest doubt about the safety of something your child has ingested. Along with their expertise, the poison center staffs have access to extensive databases that can quickly provide information on thousands of substances. The staff would rather you call to be safe than be sorry.

When you call about a suspected poisoning, the staff will need to know your child's age and weight, the substance involved (including brand name, so bring the container to the phone) and how much you think your child might have consumed.

Poison centers don't handle poisonings only from things kids and adults swallow. They deal with all the ways the body can be exposed to harmful substances: skin and eye irritants, inhaled fumes, and animal and insect bites.

What If It's Not an Emergency?

Don't feel you have to wait until you have an emergency to call. Poison center directors say they'd rather get a hundred calls asking what precautions to take than one call about a youngster who's ill.

Let's say you are having your house treated for termites, or you're hiring a lawn care company. It's wise to get the names of the products the companies propose to use, and call the poison control center to see what precautions to take so that your family and your pets don't risk any dangerous exposure.

Safety Savvy

If you've already been through one poisoning incident with your child, be extra vigilant. A child who has swallowed something harmful once is likely to try it again within a year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Another thing the center's staff can provide is regionally specific information. A generic list of poisonous plants might not include certain ones that grow only in your part of the country. The poison center can give you a localized list.

Help Them Help Others

Funding for many poison control centers is very unstable. Sources of money may include hospitals, local government, foundations, and individual donations. There were approximately 100 centers in the early 1990s, but that number has dropped to 75 due to lack of funds. This places more burdens on the ones that are left as they broaden their geographic coverage to pick up nearby communities where a center has closed.

Gadget Guide

Ask your poison center if it provides stickers with its telephone number that you can put on your phones. That way you won't have to waste time checking the phone book in an emergency. Or make your own stickers. Refer to the front page of emergency numbers in your phone book for the center nearest you.

Congress has considered, but not passed, legislation to establish a national 800 number for contacting a poison control center and provide a stable base of funding.

Call your center to find out what kind of help it needs. You might be asked to send a donation, volunteer in community education, or write a letter urging government support. If you write a letter, point out that every dollar spent on poison control centers saves the country $7 in medical costs from unnecessary emergency room visits. More important, the centers save lives.

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