I haven't had to experience this situation, but a story made me wonder what I should do in the event that someone swallows a lot of chemicals- enough to potentially be lethal, maybe.

A specific example: Someone swallows several bottles of pills. I find them and they tell me what they did, or their actions are readily apparent- somehow I know what they've done. Should I call poison control first or 911? Should I just try to get to the ER with them as fast as possible?

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    Calling the Poison Center. Poison control is a hotline of sorts that can handle emergencies. You will be asked for information about the patient, what they have (or may have) gotten into, and how much. They will tell you whether you should worry or not, what to look out for, and if applicable, forms of treatment (such as inducing vomiting or avoidance of doing so or etc). They do have medical experts on hand who know what they're talking about.
    – Doc
    Jun 7, 2014 at 1:15
  • 1
    Whoa, nice name
    – Noah
    Jun 7, 2014 at 12:45

4 Answers 4


How you should react will depend on what your child has gotten into and how they are currently acting.

First, lets clarify what each option will get you.

Poison Control (U.S.: 1-800-222-1222)

See This URL for information about who you will be talking to (medical experts in toxicology), what information they will ask you, etc. The Poison Control Center is a hotline staffed by specialists and are registered nurses or pharmacists at the least. Based on the information you provide, they will be able to tell you whether or not you need to worry, what symptoms to keep an eye out for, and if necessary, treatment (for example, whether or not to induce vomiting). They may tell you that you need to go to a hospital, or they may tell you that everything's fine and you can take care of it at home (or not even worry about it).

Emergency Services (U.S.: 911)

Emergency Services is not staffed by medical specialists. While they may have some basic knowledge of first aid and such, they will not be as knowledgeable or helpful as calling Poison Control. That said, emergency services will be able to dispatch an ambulance to your location, which may be necessary depending on the circumstances (bear in mind, depending on distance to the hospital, availability of an ambulance, and other factors, waiting on an ambulance may be slower than driving to the hospital yourself).

Now, if you know that they have definitely ingested a poisonous substance and are exhibiting strong symptoms, you may wish to just jump in the car and rush to the ER. During the drive, you can have your partner or someone else call Poison Control for suggestions.

If you are unsure if they have ingested the poisonous substance or are unsure if it's necessarily dangerous, call Poison Control immediately. They are very helpful and will be able to tell you what to do (they may tell you to immediately go to the ER or call 911).

If you know that they have ingested a poisonous substance and are unable to drive to the hospital for any reason, or are not near your vehicle, or there is some other obstacle to prevent you from quickly making your way to the hospital yourself, you may wish to call 911 (again, assuming they're exhibiting strong symptoms or you know what they got into and what the effects are). If possible, you can have one person call 911 while another calls Poison Control to cover your bases.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nor do I work for emergency services. The above is meant to inform to the best of my knowledge, but follow your own judgment in an emergency. When you call 911 or Poison Control, they will be able to help you to figure out what to do. The most important thing to do in any emergency is keep calm - the last thing you want to do is cause even more problems by freaking out and getting in a car crash on your way to the hospital or something.

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    I disagree strongly with going to the ER over calling 911, unless you live somewhere fairly rural. Ambulances and EMTs are trained to save your life and often can do so much faster than an ER can. In most urban and suburban areas, ambulance response time is very fast (often due to ambulances located in fire stations or similar).
    – Joe
    Jun 8, 2014 at 4:50
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    @Joe Friend broke her leg in Midtown Atlanta, 3 blocks from a hospital. Ambulance took 40 minutes to arrive. There was no traffic. If you have a severe issue, the ER bumps you to the front of the line. If you can get to the ER quickly and safely, it's certainly a good option.
    – Doc
    Jun 8, 2014 at 10:04
  • @Joe I'd also point out that, if the issue isn't that severe (and poison control suggests going to the hospital or you are unable to contact them - such as not knowing the number), then driving to the ER is probably a much better choice than calling 911 and wasting resources that could be better put to use with people who need the ambulance more.
    – Doc
    Jun 9, 2014 at 20:35
  • Sure, if it's not severe then the driving option is fine. However, it is consistently recommended when you do need urgent assistance (heart attacks, for example) that you call 911 rather than driving. I can't speak to Atlanta, but at least in competently run metro areas (like Chicago, where I live near) ambulances are typically a minute or two away.
    – Joe
    Jun 10, 2014 at 2:42
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    @Joe, a recent study compared private transportation to ambulance transportation, and found that, once you controlled for severity of condition, there was no difference in outcomes. The improved care provided during transportation by the ambulance balanced the speed of private transportation (no need to wait for an ambulance to arrive).
    – Mark
    Jan 31, 2015 at 5:16

According to the US Dept. of Health and Human Services Poison Help website and the Mayo Clinic, you should first call Poison Control, unless the victim is unconscious, having trouble breathing, having seizures, or is "uncontrollably restless or agitated" (I assume this is meant to be a proxy for high adrenaline levels, and not meant to imply simply stressed out from being possibly poisoned).

This is because often Poison Control can resolve cases of potential poisoning, and is a strictly better resource than 911 for triaging many cases (which is not staffed by medical professionals).

Your example is on the more serious side, but it still is highly relevant what that bottle is. If it's something you are certain needs immediate attention (sleeping pills for example) I would call 911 first and then call poison control - but if it's something you're not sure about, call Poison Control. They'll answer right away, and the 15-30 seconds it takes to get your answer may be worth it in terms of advising the EMTs of the specific dangers of the situation.

  • I like this answer for the concrete information: If the patient is not responsive, or is having difficulty breathing, then 911 is necessary. They are in immediate danger. Otherwise, poison control can be used to help you determine the best course of action - but again, only if the person is currently responsive and breathing.
    – Adam Davis
    Jun 13, 2014 at 0:19
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    Note that you should call poison control even if the patient isn't showing any symptoms. Some situations, such as Tylenol/acetaminophen/paracetamol overdose, require immediate treatment even though symptoms don't show up for a day or more.
    – Mark
    Jan 30, 2015 at 9:28

911 will get you help faster, Poison Control will get you accurate information faster.

I'd say it depends on what the medication is, how much, and how the victim is acting. If my wife and I were both home, we'd call both at the same time.


It depends on the status of your child. If the child is breathing, conscious and in little to no immediate distress/danger; then you first call should be to the Poison Control Center, they can then advise you on what to do.

If the child is in distress - difficulty breathing, intense pain etc. - , unconscious and/or not breathing you need to contact EMS (Emergency Medical Services) immediately.

The emergency dispatcher or person with the Poison Control Center will also remind you of the following: if you are advised to administer and oral anecdote do not under any circumstances administer it to a child with an altered level of consciousness. If at any time a dispatcher or some such does advise you to do so; make sure that they understand that the child is either unconscious or clearly unable to swallow for some such reason but do not argue with them (most dispatchers have received at least basic training in emergency medical procedures as directed by state and national standards)*.

Your location may also make a difference; if you are in a rural area you may need to more carefully weigh your options. Just be sure you make the calmest, most logical decisions possible and do your best to stay calm and keep the child calm. If you are calm and confident, the child will feel that and feel more comfortable.

*I included the part about making sure dispatch knows that the child is altered because they may ask you to go ahead with treatment depending on the situation. In the case of someone suffering from hypoglycemia - low blood sugar -, you may well be asked to rub honey or some such into the person's gums.

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