This article originally appeared in the Feb. 16, 2012, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
After a shopping trip to buy some new shoes, you notice your toddler open the packet of silica gel labeled “Do Not Eat” and pop the beads into his mouth before you can stop him. Do you a.) put your child in his car seat and race to the emergency room or b.) call the poison center hotline?
If you rushed your child to the emergency room, you’re looking at a significant charge—and being told that treatment is not necessary. If you called the poison center, however, you would be reassured that those silica gel beads are nontoxic and that your child will be just fine.
Scenarios like this happen every single day at the Missouri Poison Center at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center. Trained nurses and pharmacists work around the clock, responding to immediate worries and potential poisonings. Of course, there are some substances that children and adults ingest that require immediate medical attention, but poison center experts can help worried callers know when to seek care and give advice about what can be done at home.
“We’re really the first line to reassure parents and callers whether they need to seek medical help or if they can keep the child at home with simple observation and help,” said Julie Weber, director of the Missouri Poison Center. “If that child does need to be seen, we call ahead to the emergency department, so they can expect the patient and be prepared to treat whatever they’ve been exposed to.”
There are 57 poison centers across the country, but they can all be reached by a national hotline—800-222-1222—that connects callers to their local poison center. Experts at the poison center ask a number of questions to determine the correct next steps. Recommendations will vary, depending on the substance, dosage, caller’s age and weight and a number of other factors.
The types of calls that come into the poison center vary, but they all have one thing in common: A very worried person who wants answers and reassurance immediately. Missouri mother Kim called the poison center after her 21-month-old daughter snatched a tube of diaper ointment and ate some before she could stop her. After calling the poison center, Kim was reassured that her daughter would be just fine.
Almost 100,000 people called the Missouri Poison Center last year. Out of those exposure calls, more than half were treated at home. When ingestions are treated at home, poison center staff members follow up by phone with the caller until no further effects are expected.
By keeping people out of emergency departments for non-emergencies, experts estimate that poison centers save $10 in unnecessary health care spending for every dollar they spend.
Currently, poison centers are facing a difficult time. Proposed federal budget cuts would decimate the national system, potentially closing poison centers across the country. Poison center officials are hosting many meetings with lawmakers to stress the importance of the poison control center and to encourage a solution.
For the sake of the thousands of callers across the country who use the services of their local poison center, I hope they are able to find a solution.
If you ever have concerns about a possible poisoning, please call 800-222-1222. Our staff are ready to help you 24 hours a day.
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 www.cardinalglennon.com.