Virginia Poison Center: Poison prevention during the holiday season

The holiday season is filled with festive celebration and decorations but it can also be potentially poisoning to children, pets and adults. Visiting relatives and friends could be carrying hazardous medications in their suitcases and purses. Alcohol is often served and left out, giving access to a young child to drink. The family dog may eat a box of chocolates left under the tree.

S. Rutherfoord Rose, Pharm.D., director of the Virginia Poison Center and professor of emergency medicine in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, answered questions about these and other potential dangers and how to prevent them.

What are the most common types of poison experienced during the holidays?

The Virginia Poison Center receives numerous calls regarding holiday decorations such as tinsel, ornaments, plants and artificial snow.

Common exposures include potentially spoiled food, remnants of alcoholic beverages from holiday parties, tree ornaments and decorations, button batteries from toys, and medications from visiting relatives. The Virginia Poison Center receives numerous calls regarding holiday decorations such as tinsel, ornaments, plants and artificial snow. Antique ornaments and decorations may also contain lead paint.

What poisonous items or circumstances most affect people, particularly children, during the holidays?

In addition to the above, the holiday season often involves spending time in unfamiliar places, such as other people’s homes, often with a lot of people and distractions, and with increased access to unfamiliar items such as decorations and small toy pieces. Winter time also increases the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning due to faulty or improperly ventilated space heaters, charcoal grills, hibachis or household appliances. Also, rock salt is often used during winter to melt icy steps and sidewalks. A level tablespoon of rock salt or table salt can poison a child.

What is Holiday Heart Syndrome and its symptoms?

Holiday Heart Syndrome is a term used to describe heart conduction abnormalities, typically an accelerated heart rate with regular and/or heavy alcohol consumption in people without underlying heart disease. The heart rhythm disturbance is typically self-limiting and does not require treatment.

What immediate steps should be taken if any type of poisoning is suspected?

Make sure the victim is conscious and responding. 911 should be called if the victim is unconscious, difficult to awaken, having convulsions or having difficulty breathing. If the victim is not in distress, call the national poison help line at 1-800-222-1222 right away. Do not wait for symptoms to develop.

How can you prevent an accidental poisoning from interrupting the holidays?

Learning to identify those holiday items which may be poisonous to children and also those which are not a danger:

  • Poinsetta – Accidental ingestion of this plant has not caused any cases of serious poisoning in children despite thousands of exposures each Christmas.
  • Mistletoe – American mistletoe is not as poisonous as European varieties; although eating more than two or three berries may cause mild nausea or vomiting in children.
  • Shellacked or varnished ornaments – The shellac or varnish, once dried, is very poorly digested and therefore not poisonous. Dough ornaments may contain a lot of table salt, which can cause poisoning in children who eat more than a small amount.
  • Tinsel and icicles – Often made of plastic or aluminum, they are not usually poisonous but can cause choking.
  • Tree ornaments – Most modern ornaments are plastic, glass or Styrofoam and are not poisonous. Many ornaments can cause choking if swallowed. Antique and heirloom ornaments could be covered with lead-containing paints, so they should not be used in homes with small children.
  • Holly berries – The bright red berries are very attractive to a small child. They can cause mild vomiting and diarrhea if more than one or two berries are eaten. Animals may experience heart problems after eating the berries, but this has not been noted with humans.
  • Alcohols – Children are especially at risk for poisoning from even small amounts of ethanol alcohol. Drinking it can cause a dangerous drop in blood sugar levels, leading to seizures and death. Colognes and after-shaves have high alcohol content and should not be kept under the Christmas tree within easy reach. Beverage alcohols – beer, wine and liquor – should always be stored out of reach. After the holiday party, empty all beverage glasses before curious children can sample leftovers.
  • Batteries – Batteries are poisonous. Those battery-operated toys are a potential source of poisoning. The small disc batteries used in remote controls and many toys can be a serious problem if swallowed. This type of battery can cause choking, intestinal blockages or injury and poisoning from leaking contents.



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S. Rutherfoord Rose, Pharm.D.
S. Rutherfoord Rose, Pharm.D.