Virginia Poison Center
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Poison Myths

There’s a lot of misinformation about poisoning. Here are just a few of some common poison myths that are widely believed by many people.

Myth

If someone’s swallowed a poison, it’s a good idea to get them to drink milk right away. This will help by coating the stomach to prevent harm.

Fact

This is an “old wives’ tale” that probably harks back to a time when there was little scientific understanding of how chemicals act in the body. Milk is NOT a remedy or antidote for poisons, nor does it protect the stomach from an ingested chemical or toxin. The correct first action to take if you think someone has swallowed a potential poison is an immediate call to the poison center at 1-800-222-1222. The experts there will tell you what to do to help the patient.

Myth

The pretty poinsettia plants that we use for Christmas decorations are very dangerous if eaten.

Fact

The poinsettia EUPHORBIA PULCHERRIMA is native to Mexico and widely available during the Christmas holidays as a potted plant. These are very minimally  toxic to humans, but if eaten in rather large amounts  can cause mild stomach ache and nausea. There are no recent or reliable reports of significant harmful effects from this plant despite the thousands of calls to poison centers about children who do eat poinsettia  each year.

Myth

A bite from a baby snake will cause more harm than an adult snake’s bite.

Fact

Actually, for North American snake species, the venom of juvenile snakes is identical to that of the adult snake. A bite from either an adult or a juvenile poisonous snake can cause toxic effects ranging from very minor to major, depending upon factors such as the amount of venom that’s injected and the size and health of the bitten person. Of interest is the fact that about 25% of bites from snakes in the pit viper species are “dry”: no venom is injected into the victim and no toxic effects occur.

Myth

If you think someone’s been poisoned, you should call 911 immediately.

Fact

For a possible poisoning, it’s best to call the poison center first unless the patient is unconscious, or is having a seizure or severe trouble breathing. Poison center staff are real experts who will be able to tell you exactly what to do. They answer calls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The call is fast, free and confidential. Many cases of poisoning can be handled safely right over the phone, avoiding unnecessary and expensive emergency department treatment. If you do need a doctor or ambulance, the poison center will tell you right away, and help you to get the assistance you need.

Myth

Poisoning is mostly a problem for small children. Not many adults are seriously harmed by exposures to poisons.

Fact

In Virginia, more adults from the age of 18 to 45 die from an injury than from all diseases combined. And, in that age group, the number of injury deaths from poisoning is second only to fatalities from motor vehicle accidents! Poisoning still remains one of the most common injuries among small children. It’s so common that almost fifty percent of all cases reported to poison centers involve children less than 6 years old. But more than 70% of all deaths from poisoning occur among adults ages 20 to 59. Always call the poison center right away if you think someone - of any age - may have swallowed, breathed or had skin or eye contact with a possible poison.

Myth

Most of the time, someone who’s been poisoned will have a sudden  illness – like vomiting, skin color changes or trouble breathing-- that you can notice within a few minutes of the exposure.

Fact

Poisoning doesn't always cause immediate illness that’s visible. Many chemicals cause unseen, but deadly, damage to internal organs. Poisons can also cause serious  problems like changes in blood pressure or heart rhythm which can’t be detected without special equipment. Sometimes there is a delay of many hours before harm from a poison begins to be noticeable. For these reasons, it’s not safe to take a “wait and see” approach to a possible poisoning. If you suspect that someone may have come into contact with a possible poison, call the poison center right away at 1-800-222-1222 for expert help.