Auntie Dote's Poison Prevention Advice

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.