Poison Information

  • Snake Bites

    Dear Auntie Dote:

    I saw a snake in the grass and someone told me to look at the shape of the eyes to determine whether it is poisonous? Is that true?

    Sincerely, Fascinated with snakes

    Dear Fascinated:

    Although it is true, you can tell a Tennessee venomous snake from a nonvenomous snake by the shape of the eyes, if you are looking at the snake’s eyes, that means you are way too close to the snake. There are four venomous snakes in Tennessee- copperheads, pygmy rattlesnakes, timber rattlesnakes, and west of the Tennessee River and in the counties of Cheatham, Dickson, Hickman, Humphreys, Perry, Wayne and Williamson, there are cotton mouths (also known as water moccasins). Venomous snakes can cause pain, swelling at the site, and sometimes permanent impairment to the limb. In addition to the above, rattlesnake bites can cause bleeding because there in an enzyme in the venom that makes it hard for blood to clot.

    What to do if you get a snake bite? If possible wash the area with soap and water. Do not use any tourniquets, no cutting or sucking of the wound. The bite site should be elevated above heart level if possible and immobilized. Do not apply heat or ice. Call 911 if possible or proceed immediately to the closest emergency department. Call the Tennessee Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 if you get bit or need assistance.


    Dear Auntie Dote:

    I had a delicious poke salad at my aunt’s house, but when I picked it and made a salad, my family and I had really bad vomiting and diarrhea. What happened?

    Sincerely, Man, was I wrong!

    Dear Man, was I wrong:

    Pokeweed is a shrub which grows to 8 feet tall. It has white flowers which develop into juicy, dark, purple berries from July to September. It has a large fleshy root system with thick, light purple stems.

    Although people have successfully prepared and eaten pokeweed, it must be cooked properly which means boiling thoroughly and rinsing, discarding the water and then boiling and rinsing again. Even with proper preparation, severe vomiting, diarrhea, headache can still occur.

    Never eat the root of the poke weed as this has the highest concentration of toxins and has resulted in serious side effects and even death. Call the Tennessee Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 if you have questions or a poison emergency.

    Bath Salts

    Dear Auntie Dote:

    I keep hearing about the state cracking down on bath salts. I have used bath salts for years and never had a problem so what’s the problem now?

    The “bath salts” in the news are not the kind used in your tub. It is a slang term for a stimulant street drug. Persons snort, eat or inject the drug and it can cause serious side effects like kidney damage, seizures and even death. In addition to the bad effects, this is not a regulated drug, so you can never really trust that this product contains the drug that you think it does. Best bet is to stay away from this or any similar products. Call the Tennessee Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 if you have questions or a poison emergency.

    Poison Prevention Q's & A's from Auntie Dote

    Dear Auntie Dote:

    Now that school’s back in session, my son has picked up his habit of sucking on pencil leads. I try to keep him from doing it, but he sees all the other kids doing it – you know how THAT is. I’m back to worrying about it, again, and I wager you can tell me what to do about it. This is probably bad for him to do, isn’t it? I mean, the lead..

    Sincerely, Getting the Lead Out

    Dear Getting the Lead Out,

    You might like to know right off the bat: The ‘leads’ in pencils are not lead, but graphite. While it may be messy, it shouldn’t harm him to suck on the tips. The varnish coating on the paint in the pencil casing may have some lead in it, but not in sufficient quantities as to be expected to cause harm. Small children, of course, should not have pencils. They can break apart and get lodged in their throat if swallowed. Also, the sharp point can be hazardous. A pencil jab in the skin (kids will get these, won’t they), should not be any more poisonous than with a plain old stick. In fact, you would treat it as if a stick had poked him. You’re right to be concerned about lead, but the pencil isn’t the one to worry about.

    Dear Auntie Dote:

    I used hot chili peppers last year to make my favorite five-alarm dish, but I got a case of chili burns that really put me in dire straits. Now, I’m afraid to touch them, but my family is clamoring for my chili. Any suggestions?

    Sincerely, Once Burned Now Shy in Memphis

    Dear Once Burned,

    It’s really hard to replace that fresh chili flavor, I know, but you do have to be careful with them.

    The active property is Capsaicin, and it acts on certain mammalian nerve receptors (birds lack them, by the way, which explains their “immunity”) to make your skin feel like it is being deep fried! The oily substance tends to stick to your skin and sink deep into cuts or open sores. So, the first step is to wear gloves! Sounds simple, but it’s the best way to prevent skin contact.

    Remember NOT to touch your face, especially your eyes. In fact, it is a very good idea to remove your contact lenses and put on eye protection before touching the peppers. Any kind of eyewear can at least keep that stray “splash” as you wash or cut them and will put up a bit of a barrier against actually touching your eyes. Remember, the entire pepper contains Capsaicin: the seeds, the veins, as well as the flesh. Please, do call the Poison Center for treatment recommendations if you do have an exposure. We’ll be glad to help.

    Dear Auntie Dote:

    I just can’t keep my toddler from getting into our medicines. He just wants to play with those tops and he can really open them -- and faster than I can, too! I’ve tried keeping them high (he climbs like a mountaineer) and locking a cabinet (he LOVES that, find the key, what a game!), and I even put them in the refrigerator (new game!), but he just can’t be stopped. I’m so frustrated I feel like just giving him his “own” prescription bottles (empty, of course) to play with. Maybe then he’ll leave the real ones alone. What do you think of my plan? Or do you have a better idea?

    Sincerely, Frustrated Mom

    Dear Frustrated Mom,

    I can certainly understand how frustrated you must feel. It is a real challenge to keep those attractive little puzzle-game bottles away from a curious toddler. He seems to think the hunt is part of the game, doesn’t he? Generally, out of sight out of mind is the biggest key, but once he knows where they are, even a key won’t stop him. He will rise to the occasion when the game gets more exciting. You’re doing what you can, I know, and I can make one suggestion.

    Get one of those tackle boxes you find in hardware and department stores. They come in all sizes, some large enough to put dangerous household products in, if you like. You can put all of your medications in there, and -- here’s the big idea -- put a combination (no keys) on it. All the adults in the family can have the combination. You can even put it in your address book or post it somewhere handy. The idea is to build extra time into access. He can spend so much time trying to work the combination that HE will become the frustrated one and give up the effort. You can even put a small one in the refrigerator for those medications or products that need it. This one small addition may make all the difference.

    Now, as to your plan to give him empty bottles, you may want to remember this: out of sight works, but so does IN sight. He may become even more attracted to pill bottles if you give them to him; he will see them as toys because mom gave them to him. This is not the direction you want to go! Just as parents should avoid telling children that their medicine is candy, you don’t want him to view pill bottles as toys.

    I hope this helps a bit. 

    Dear Auntie Dote:

    So, Christmas is over and I’ve got a ton of those little packs that say “Do NOT eat.” Why? And are these really poisonous, like my sister says? What should I do if my kids eat it?

    Sincerely, Swimming in Silica (gel) in Bell Buckle

    Dear Swimming,

    First things first: Do call Tennessee Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 if someone eats anything, including the silica gel packets. Make that your rule of thumb. But you should be reassured to know that it says “Do NOT eat” because it is not food. Essentially it is a sand-like substance that is very porous and able to absorb moisture, which can degrade leather goods and electronics. It is not poisonous itself, though some may have a moisture indicator, such as Cobalt (ii) chloride, but even if it does, the amount is so small that it is unlikely to be toxic.

    The beads themselves are not poisonous but remember that small children may try to swallow the whole packet, which can be a choking hazard.

    P.S.: Pass this on to your sister, too.

    Dear Auntie Dote:

    You can settle a bet for me. My brother says that those Styrofoam packing peanuts are deadly poisonous to eat. He says they use all kinds of poisonous stuff to make them, and even putting them in your mouth causes that junk to seep into you. He says that’s why California put out a ban on it. I say that’s bogus. Who’s right?

    Sincerely, Curious in Knoxville

    Dear Curious,

    Your brother has it right! But only about the ban, not the reason. Some communities have banned it because it is not biodegradable and causes huge problems, particularly in waterways where it clogs drainage systems.

    And you’re right about the toxicity when eaten. While there are toxic substances used in the manufacturing of Styrofoam, and burning it can release dangerous fumes, eating it would not likely cause poisoning. It will generally simply pass without harm through the GI tract.

    Caution: it CAN be a choking hazard to children.

    That won’t settle the bet, but you BOTH get to keep your money.

    Dear Auntie Dote:

    I’m having my whole family over for a holiday meal, and I’ve never cooked a turkey before. Can you tell me where to get some information?  I don’t want to poison anyone!

    Sincerely, New to the turkey thing

    Dear New,

    Food handling can be tricky.  A rule of thumb: “Keep it hot, keep it cold, or don’t keep it.”

    I know, that’s not very specific, but luckily there are some good places for information about this topic on the web and by phone:

    USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline (800) 535-4555

    Shadybrook Farms Dial a Chef  (800) 723-4468

    Non-turkey food questions:
    FDA hotline (888) SAFEFOOD, (888) 723-3366

    Food Safety

    If you feel that may have food poisoning, though, don’t hesitate to call us:


    Dear Auntie Dote:

    I inherited some of those really cool Christmas bubble lights from my mom. One of them didn’t work, so I looked on the net to replace it. But I started reading about the methylene chloride in them, and now I’m afraid to use them. Are they really that dangerous?

    Sincerely, Worried in Sevierville

    Dear Worried,

    Bubble lights do commonly contain methylene chloride, also known as dichloromethane.

    I share your concerns because when dichloromethane leaks from its sealed container – it’s the “bubbler” when the light heats it up – and the fumes are inhaled, carbon monoxide can be produced in the body. I’m sure you’re aware how dangerous carbon monoxide can be.

    For sure, it is probably a small amount that is likely to be inhaled, but children are particularly susceptible to toxicity. At our center, it is small children that are most often exposed; they are practically irresistible to them! Not only that, but dichloromethane is a suspected carcinogen – lungs, liver, pancreas, and it presents a hazard to pregnant women.

    They are very attractive, as you can see, but may not be worth the risk.

    If you do use decide to use them, I would only do so with extreme care. Put them well out of the reach of children (and pets!). Don’t forget to call us if you have an exposure at  1-800-222-1222 

    Dear Auntie Dote:

    I heard that wrapping paper, especially the red colors, were really bad for kids to get into. Is that true? How about the ribbon? I have a lot of little kids in my family, and they just love the wrapping paper, and stuff, but maybe I should use white or another color. What if they put it in their mouths?

    Sincerely, All wrapped up in Christmas!

    Dear All wrapped up in Christmas,

    The dyes and inks used in wrapping paper should not be dangerous to handle. Even sucking or putting it in the mouth should not be worrisome. The same applies to the ribbon. There’s just too little of the dyes or inks to cause any problem. Not to worry. The particular colors aren’t important and for the same reason. Feel free to be festive on the holidays! The only caution here is to be aware that paper and ribbon of any sort can be a choking hazard for little ones.

    Alcohol Poisoning

    Dear Auntie Dote:

    My daughter called me because she thought she had alcohol poisoning. What exactly is alcohol poisoning?

    Sincerely, Worried Mom

    Dear Worried Mom,

    Alcohol “poisoning” is when the alcohol level is the blood is so high that it causes the normal gag reflex and breathing reflexes in the brain to decrease or stop.

    Signs of a dangerous level of alcohol in the blood include:

    • Confusion, stupor, unconsciousness, passing out, cannot be awakened
    • Excessive vomiting
    • Seizures
    • Irregular or slow breathing (less than eight breaths a minute)
    • Low body temperature, blue tinged skin or lips

    If the person is unconscious, breathing less than eight times a minute, passes out or is having seizures, call 911 immediately. Keep in mind that even when someone is unconscious or has stopped drinking, alcohol continues to be released into the bloodstream and the level of alcohol in the body continues to rise.

    Don't leave an unconscious person alone. While waiting for help, don't try to make the person vomit or offer fluids like black coffee to “sober up” the person. Alcohol affects the way your gag reflex works. That means someone with alcohol poisoning may choke on his/her own vomit or accidentally inhale vomit or fluids into the lungs.

    The only thing that reverses the effects of alcohol is time. Time is something you may not have if someone is suffering from alcohol poisoning. Please be a friend and call 911 or your local emergency center if you suspect someone has had too much alcohol. If the person is conscious, but you have questions about their condition, you can discuss your concerns with your local poison center at 1-800-222-1222. You may save someone’s life.


    As the weather warms and we spend more time outside, families face new risks. Here are some hints to avoid poisonings that occur most often in summer.

    Insect Bites

    • Be alert to insects that may bite or sting. After a sting, the site will show redness and swelling. It may be itchy and painful. Be careful around bees, wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets.
    • Some people are allergic to insect stings. To these people, a sting may cause serious problems and even death. Go to a hospital right away if you are stung and have any of these signs: hives, dizziness, breathing trouble, or swelling around eyes and mouth.

    Snake Bites

    • If a poisonous snake bites you or someone you know, call Poison Help (1-800-222-1222) right away.
    • The experts at your poison center will determine if the snake is poisonous. They will tell you what signs to watch for and what to do.
    • If the snake is not poisonous, you will need to wash the wound. You also may need a tetanus booster shot. Check with your doctor to find out.
    • Click image below to view information on prevention and first aid.

    pit viper safety

    Spider Bites

    • Most spider and tick bites do not cause harm. But, there are some spiders that can cause illness in some people. Two common spiders that can harm you are the female black widow and the brown recluse.
    • The female black widow is a black, shiny spider. It has a red or orange hourglass shape on its underside. Within 2 hours after being bitten by the female, you may feel stomach pain, dizziness, and muscle stiffness. You may have trouble breathing.
    • The brown recluse is a yellowish-tan to dark brown spider. It has a small body and long legs. The brown recluse has a dark violin shape on its body. Within 36 hours after being bitten, you may see or feel signs of poisoning. You may feel restless. You may have fever, chills, nausea, weakness, a rash, or joint pain. A blister or wound may develop at the bite site. The wound may be shaped like a bull’s-eye (a blister with rings around). If the wound worsens, see a doctor. Most likely you will not need antibiotics. States known to be home to the Brown Recluse are AL, AR, FL, GA, IA, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MO, MS, NC, NE, NM, OH, OK, SC, TN, TX.

    Food Poisoning

    • Always wash hands and counters before preparing food. Use clean utensils for cooking and serving.  Store food at the proper temperatures. Refrigerated foods cannot be left out at temperatures above 40 degrees F (5 degrees C). The following foods, and others, can quickly spoil and become unsafe: party platters, meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, eggs, mayonnaise, and cooked vegetables.
    • Wash hands with hot, soapy water after handling raw meat, poultry, or seafood. Wash cutting boards, utensils, and dishes after use with these foods.
    • Use a thermometer when cooking and reheating foods. That will help you to know when they are done and safe to eat.
    • Do not let food sit out at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
    • Watch for signs of food poisoning. They include fever, headache, diarrhea, stomach pains, nausea, and vomiting.


    • If you are allergic to poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, touching it can cause blisters on your skin.
    • Be sure that everyone in your family can identify these plants. Remember, "leaves of three, let it be."
    • If someone touches poison ivy, poison sumac, or poison oak rinse right away with plenty of running water for at least 5 minutes.
    • Unless you are a plant expert, do not pick your own foods to eat in the wild.
    • Poison hemlock and water hemlock can be fatal to people. Their roots, or tubers, can look like wild carrots or parsnips.

    Common Name, Botanical Name

    Azalea, rhododendron, Rhododendron
    Caladium, Caladium
    Castor bean, Ricinis communis
    Daffodil, Narcissus
    Deadly nightshade,Atropa belladonna
    Dumbcane, Dieffenbachia
    Elephant Ear, Colocasia esculenta
    Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea
    Holly, Ilex
    Iris, Iris
    Jerusalem cherry, Solanum pseudocapsicum
    Jimson weed,Datura stramonium
    Lantana, Lantana camara
    Lily-of-the-valley, Convallaria majalis
    Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum
    Mistletoe, Viscum album
    American Mistletoe,Phoradendron flavescens
    Morning glory,Ipomoea
    Mountain laurel, Kalmia Iatifolia
    Mushrooms, Assorted
    Nightshade, Salanum spp.
    Oleander, Nerium oleander
    Peace lily, Spathiphyllum
    Philodendron, Philodendron
    Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana
    Pothos, Epipremnum aureum
    Yew, Taxus


    • Only experts can tell poisonous mushrooms from safe mushrooms.
    • Poisonous mushrooms, called "death caps," often grow in yards and park.
    • Eating even a few bites of certain mushrooms can cause liver damage that can kill you.

    Alcoholic Drinks and Products

    • Alcohol can be a deadly poison for children. All of the following are dangerous for children: beer, wine, mixed drinks, other alcoholic beverages, facial cleaners, and mouthwash.
    • Alcohol will make a child sleepy.
    • The child can develop low blood sugar. This can lead to seizures, coma, and death
    • Be careful not to leave alcoholic drinks where children can reach them. Be alert at parties and gatherings. Children may find cups containing leftover alcohol within their reach.

    Insect Spray or Lotion 

    • Be sure to check the label on any insect repellent. Most contain DEET, which can harm children if used improperly or in large amounts.
    • Do not allow children to apply repellent to themselves. Have an adult do this for them. When using repellent on a child, put a little on your own hands, then rub them on your child. Avoid the eyes and mouth. Use only a little around the ears.
    • Use separate products when there is a need for insect spray and sunscreen. Do not use sunscreen that contains DEET. Repeatedly applying a product with DEET can increase the risk of harmful effects. Always follow the instructions on the label.
    • For most products, after returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and water. Some labels give different advice. Check the label of the product you are using.


    Carbon Monoxide - The Silent Killer

    With the onset of colder weather, the poison center learns of preventable deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning. A common scenario is the family who uses a generator indoors to produce heat in the home. The generator creates carbon monoxide into the air that the family breathes, and fatalities occur.

    Carbon monoxide is a gas that is released from the incomplete combustion of a carbon containing substance such as gas, kerosene, wood or charcoal. Common sources include wood fires, gas generators, car engines, and charcoal grills. Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, so it does not have properties to warn people that they are being exposed. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can mimic flu-like symptoms except that the flu-like symptoms improve after the affected person leaves the area with the high concentrations of the carbon monoxide.

    Carbon monoxide detectors can be used in the home as warning devices. Carbon monoxide detectors are not the same as smoke detectors and most smoke detectors do not detect carbon monoxide. The carbon monoxide detector gives an alarm when the levels of the carbon monoxide in the environment rise. This alerts the people in the environment to leave the building and open windows to ventilate the area. Symptomatic patients should be evaluated by a health care provider. Do not operate any fuel burning appliances until the source of the carbon monoxide has been identified and repaired.

    1. Have a carbon monoxide detector in the house. The detector should meet the requirements of the Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
    2. Don’t use a generator or other gasoline-powered engines in an enclosed space.
    3. Don’t bring burning charcoal grills into the house.
    4. Make sure the chimney flue is clear before using the fireplace. Do not close the damper of the chimney until the fire is completely extinguished and the embers are cold.
    5. Don’t run or idle the car engine in the garage.

    Additional useful information about carbon monoxide poisoning and its prevention can be found in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website: http://www.cdc.gov/co/


    As you begin spring cleaning and work on the yard, follow these simple tips to keep your family safe.

    Household Cleaners and Other Chemical Products

    • Keep poisons in the containers they came in. do not use food containers (such as cups or bottles) to store household cleaners and other strong chemicals.
    • Store strong chemicals away from food. Many poisonings occur when one product is mistaken for another
    • Read and follow the directions for use of products. Do this BEFORE using the products. Follow the advice carefully
    • Never mix chemicals. Doing so can create a poisonous gas.
    • Turn on fans and open windows when using strong chemicals
    • When spraying chemicals, direct spray nozzle away from people and pets
    • Never sniff containers to see what’s inside
    • Discard old or outdated products. First aid advice on containers may be incorrect and outdated
    • Call Tennessee Poison Center (1-800-222-1222) to double check first aid information
    • Even in small amounts, windshield wiper fluid is poisonous. If swallowed, it can cause blindness or death to people and pets
    • Strong chemicals can burn the skin. Drain openers, toilet cleaners, rust removers, and oven cleaners can cause such burns
    • Hydrocarbon liquids (liquids made from petroleum) are poisonous. They include gasoline, kerosene, charcoal lighter fluid, paint thinner, baby oil, lamp oil, and furniture polish
      • If hydrocarbons are swallowed, they can easily get into the lungs. Even a small amount can cause breathing problems. The liquid coats the inside of the lungs. That prevents oxygen from entering the bloodstream.


    • Only experts can tell poisonous mushrooms from safe mushroom
    • Poisonous mushrooms, called “death caps”, often grow in yards and parks
    • Eating even a few bites of certain mushrooms can cause liver damage that can kill you


    • Pesticides (pest killers) can be taken in through the skin or inhaled. Even leather shoes and gloves do not offer full protection. Pesticides can be extremely poisonous. Stay away from areas that have been sprayed until the spray has dried or for at least one hour.
    • Wear protective clothing when using bug spray or other spray products. Put on a long-sleeve shirt, long pants, socks, shoes, and gloves. Remove and wash clothing after using chemicals.
    • If pesticides are splashed onto the skin, rinse with running water for 15-20 minutes. If pesticide contacts clothing, take off the clothing before rinsing skin.
    • Many garden chemicals are poisonous to children and adults. These chemicals can be harmful if swallowed or inhaled.

    For additional poison prevention information visit www.PoisonHelp.HRSA.gov.