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This article originally appeared in the Nov. 15, 2012, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Now that most of us have the Internet literally at our fingertips, the urge to Google any question that pops up is strong. However, there are situations where the more old-fashioned approach is better. When you suspect your child or other family member has swallowed or inhaled something they shouldn’t, your first step should be to call the poison center hotline—not head for the computer.

The Missouri Poison Center is increasingly hearing from callers that they ran an Internet search before calling. Research and being an informed patient is important but when every minute counts, calling the experts before consulting a search engine is crucial.

“Many of the calls we get are genuine emergencies,” said Julie Weber, director of the Missouri Poison Center. “Some poisons act very quickly. Having a trained poison specialist give you exact instructions for your specific situation can help significantly during those critical first few minutes.”

The internet is filled with more information than we could possibly absorb in a lifetime. There are some reputable health care sites with valuable information, but general health information doesn’t take into account important factors that are considered during an emergency.

Sometimes the danger of ingesting a substance isn’t in the substance itself but in potential interactions with other medications or medical conditions. A medication that would be harmless for one person could have dangerous complications for another.

“Some prescription medications can cause dangerous drug interactions with over-the-counter cough or allergy medicines, for instance,” Weber said. “Poison center specialists are trained on exactly what questions to ask and what to look for to determine the best course of treatment.”

Poison center specialists can quickly determine potential complications and the best way to approach the situation. Sometimes, at-home treatment or just observing for symptoms can be sufficient. When medical attention is needed, the poison center specialist can make arrangements at an emergency department to ensure they have the treatment needed ready.

If you believe your child or anyone else has ingested something that could be harmful, call 800-222-1222. This is a national hotline that will route to your local poison center to get the fastest assistance.

Doing online research and learning about medical conditions is a new sign of the times and a must-do for a savvy patient. But savvy patients need to know when it’s important to put down the smartphone and dial an emergency number to get help.

Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at

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