Poison control centers handle millions of calls every year about exposures to just about anything you can imagine — from chia seeds and gummy vitamins to bleach and button batteries.
Although young children make up a large amount of these exposures, poisonings among teenagers and adults tend to be more serious, according to the National Capitol Poison Center.
Anyone is at risk, and accidents happen more often than you'd think. On average, the U.S. poison control receives a call about an exposure every 15 seconds, according to the NCPC. Here are some of the more common and surprising exposures and how to avoid making the same mistakes, according to two poison control experts.
Leaving personal care products out around children
"Probably the most common call that we get at poison center about children is going to be cosmetics and personal care products," Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a medical toxicology physician and interim executive director at the National Capital Poison Center, tells TODAY.com.
These are items people typically use daily, leave out around the home, and do not usually come in child-resistant packaging, says Johnson-Arbor — such as soap, shampoo, makeup, lotion or deodorant. Exposures among children are almost always unintentional.
Even nontoxic products can still cause unpleasant side effects and severe symptoms, depending on what and how much is consumed. The most common symptoms, however, are irritation, nausea or vomiting, Kaitlyn Brown, PharmD, clinical managing director of America’s Poison Centers, tells TODAY.com.
Keep personal care products and cosmetics stored securely and out of reach if children are in the home, especially those under 6, the experts say.
Accidentally ingesting or inhaling household cleaners
People are typically exposed to cleaning products by accidentally swallowing them, getting it on their skin or in their eyes, or inhaling the fumes or toxic gases emitted from the cleaners or a mixture of them, says Johnson-Arbor.
Some cleaning products are more dangerous than others. Chemical drain cleaners, for example, are at the top of the list, followed by bleach, because they are very corrosive and can cause severe gastrointestinal injury, says Johnson-Arbor.
"You need to wear gloves and long sleeves so they can't splash back on your skin," she says, adding that preventing an exposure is often as simple as following instructions. Another common mistake is pouring out a cleaning product into another cup, which can lead someone to drink it, says Brown.
People can also get exposed by inhaling the fumes from cleaning products or a toxic mixture of them, says Johnson-Arbor. Combining bleach with vinegar or ammonia produces a poisonous gas that can irritate the lungs or cause injury and death in severe cases, TODAY previously reported. Never mix any household cleaners, especially not bleach, the experts emphasize.
Not locking away over-the-counter medications and vitamins from children
Another common cause of poisonings in the U.S. is over-the-counter medications, the experts say. These include pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, antihistamines like Benadryl, and also dietary supplements or vitamins. People often call because they took too many or the wrong combination of medications, or because a child got into them.
“The general theme is that people tend to leave out these common products (or medications) that you can buy over the counter,” says Johnson-Arbor, whereas prescription medications tend to be stored away more securely — though these are still responsible for a significant number of calls into poison control, as well.
It may be obvious to hide away things like antidepressants or sleep medication if there are children in the home, but this should apply to all medications, the experts note — because over-the-counter does not necessarily mean safe. Many of these drugs can be toxic or even lethal when consumed in high enough amounts, says Johnson-Arbor, and they often resemble candy to kids, especially vitamins.
“Dietary supplements — whether it’s calcium or iron or vitamin D or vitamin C — could all be potentially toxic if they’re swallowed,” says Johnson-Arbor.
The experts do not recommend leaving any of these products out on a counter, nightstand or in an easily accessible place if kids are around.
“Child-resistant (packaging) doesn’t mean childproof — a lot of times we have parents contact us and they’re completely thrown that their child accessed medication that was in a child-resistant container,” says Brown. “These containers are designed to keep a majority of children out of products, but given the right amount of time and child, they’ll be able to open it."
Putting all your medications in one bag or bottle when traveling
Often times, accidental exposures to medications occur because people have removed the pills from the original bottle and mixed them together, says Johnson-Arbor. This is a common occurrence when people are traveling and want to save space by mixing a week's worth of medication into one bottle or baggie, for example.
Even if you can tell your medications apart, says Johnson-Arbor, this habit still makes it very easy to take the wrong medication, the wrong combination, or the right pill at the wrong time of day.
This also makes it easier for kids to get into prescription medicines.
"One very common call that poison centers will receive is that a child accessed a Ziploc baggie that has a bunch of medications in it," says Brown. This makes it more challenging to know what the child took, she adds, and poison control can only make the best risk assessment when they know which medications are consumed.
The experts recommend always keeping medication in its original container or using a carefully labeled pill container or organizer — which should also be stored securely away from children since these are typically not child-resistant, Brown adds.
Participating in spicy TikTok challenges
“A lot of these social media fads or challenges, even if they may seem innocuous and harmless, can actually have pretty significant side effects,” says Johnson-Arbor, adding that videos are often edited to leave out the real impact or the aftermath.
One recent example is the Paqui #onechipchallenge, which involves eating a super hot tortilla chip — so hot it comes with a warning on the label because of its extremely high capsaicin content— and seeing how long you can last without eating or drinking anything.
Since last fall, when the challenge began going viral on TikTok, Johnson-Arbor says poison control has started getting a significant number of reports of exposures. Many of these are among children.
“The videos don’t necessarily show how sick you can get, and people can get very severe symptoms if they have underlying heart disease or asthma or another condition,” says Johnson-Arbor. Although the vast majority of people will recover from the irritating effects and intestinal discomfort on their own, it just isn't worth it, the experts note. (Most TikTok challenges aren’t, they say.)
Not having a working carbon monoxide detector
"Carbon monoxide is a a silent killer. You can't see it, smell it, or taste it, but you can hear it if you have a carbon monoxide detector in the home," says Johnson-Arbor. Not every state mandates residential carbon monoxide detectors, Johnson-Arbor adds, and many people do not have one in the home, though there should be at least one per floor and in the garage.
"A gas-powered stove, gas fireplace and gas-powered hot water heater or furnace, for example, can generate carbon monoxide," says Johnson-Arbor, who recommends that everyone have a functioning carbon monoxide detector in their home or near every sleeping area to ensure it will wake people up.
It’s also important to know what the detector sounds like and which chirps or beeps indicate low battery, says Johnson-Arbor. Always read the label on the detector and call the manufacturer if you still aren't sure, Johnson-Arbor adds.
Letting kids play with water beads unsupervised
Water beads have recently become a very popular toy among kids and a very popular reason parents call poison control, the experts say. "They’re usually very, very small, but when you put them in water, they can expand to a much larger size," says Johnson-Arbor.
Their small size, in addition to looking like candy, makes water beads very easy for a child to swallow. The beads are typically nontoxic, and in most cases the child will pass the beads and be fine, says Brown, but it also depends on how many they ingested.
"If a child swallows a large number of them, they can actually cause an intestinal blockage, and that can be life threatening and require surgery in some cases," says Johnson-Arbor. She recommends storing water beads out of reach unless they're in use and always supervising playtime, especially with young kids and toddlers.
When in doubt, call poison control
The experts point out that people will often go to the internet initially to find out what to do after an exposure, which can lead to misinformation.
"Poison control has experts there 24/7 who deal with all types of exposures on a daily basis and really know how to help treat and manage the situation in the best way possible in the quickest manner possible," says Johnson-Arbor.
Call 1-800-222-1222 to speak with a poison expert directly or visit PoisonHelp.org to get online support and resources.