When people spend more time outdoors, there are simply more opportunities to encounter potential poisons – ranging from minor irritation from sunscreen and insect repellants rubbed into the eyes to potentially life-threatening situations such as ingesting plants or mushrooms.
UW Health Poison Education Coordinator Donna Lotzer, RPh, says summer is busy for the Wisconsin Poison Center in Milwaukee, which can be reached at 1-800-222-1222. Poison experts there give advice in all cases of exposure to poisons.
“It appears that the ‘usual and customary’ summer poisoning hazards are happening earlier than ever this year,” Lotzer said, pointing in part to an early and vicious mosquito and tick infestation that has prompted calls to the center about ingestion and eye exposures to bug sprays and other repellants.
Because summer poisoning hazards vary widely in levels of danger and ways to manage them, Lotzer says the best general advice she can give is to call the Wisconsin Poison Center at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. The 1-800-222-1222 hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and callers receive immediate assistance.
“The number is national, so put a phone sticker or magnet with the number in your glove box when you’re traveling,” Lotzer said. “You never know when you might need it.”
Along with all the picnics, camping trips, festivals and other outdoor fun, summer months bring a variety of poison dangers:
From itchy poison ivy to wild parsnip that can cause painful blistering and welts, several poisonous plants can wreak havoc in the summer months. Lotzer advises that treatment for poisonous plants should always begin with immediate washing of all affected areas, followed by a call to the Poison Center for further advice.
In the summertime, children and even adults may be enticed to sample berries and mushrooms in their surroundings, whether in the yard, woods, or even school playgrounds and day care centers. Lotzer says the best thing to do if someone eats a potential plant poison is to collect a sample with leaves, flowers and fruit, or a complete mushroom, and call the Poison Center immediately for help with identification and recommended action.
In general, Lotzer says, there are no hard and fast rules to determine whether a plant is potentially poisonous, so it’s best to exercise caution.
“You can’t tell by where they grow, or what color their leaves are,” Lotzer said. “You can’t make assumptions on whether or not it would be edible.”
Mushrooms can cause particular problems since they can be found almost anywhere in the spring, summer and fall.
“There are toxic and edible mushrooms that look very much the same,” Lotzer said. “People in Wisconsin have died from eating mushrooms picked in their own yard. You just shouldn’t do it unless you really, really know what you’re doing.”
Wisconsin is home to many species of snakes, but fortunately, most are relatively harmless and willing to leave humans alone if they’re not provoked.
“Catching a snake is every small boy’s dream, but some might reward the effort with a painful chomp from a mouthful of teeth,” Lotzer said.
But in some parts of the state, timber rattlesnakes can cause serious injury and even death – though Lotzer reports only one death in Wisconsin since 1900 from a timber rattlesnake bite.
For help with any snakebite, call the Poison Center as soon as possible, and try to describe the snake accurately. However, if symptoms are severe, call 911 and seek immediate medical attention. Do not kill the snake unless absolutely necessary, Lotzer says.
Insect Repellants and Pesticides
Most insect repellants on the market contain some percentage of DEET, which can be very irritating if it gets into a person’s eyes through sweat or rubbing. The effect can be especially irritating to children.
“You don’t want to take a really tiny kid and slather them with 30 percent DEET,” Lotzer says.
If you’re in the yard applying pesticides and the chemicals get on your skin, Lotzer advises laundering your clothing separately and showering to get the residue off your hair and skin.
“You need to be smart – take the time, stop what you’re doing and get cleaned up,” Lotzer said.
Glow Jewelry and Toys
Popular toys often sold at Fourth of July celebrations and summer fairs, “glow sticks” and jewelry made of glowing chemicals inside a tube prompt several calls to the Poison Center. Most callers are worried about eye exposures or children biting into the plastic tubes.
“The kids are given these glow sticks and start playing with them, and if they bite it open chemicals inside can get onto their skin and rubbed into their eyes,” Lotzer said.
Eye contact with the contents of the glow sticks can cause mild to severe eye pain, and even corneal abrasions when a person repeatedly rubs the irritated eye to ease the discomfort.
Problems can also arise when people put the glow toys in the freezer to preserve the glowing effect. When the sticks are frozen, they become stiff and easier to break if they’re chewed or bent.
- To contact the Wisconsin Poison Center, call 1-800-222-1222.
- For educational outreach programs and information on summer-related or general poison hazards, contact the Poison Prevention and Education Center at UW Hospital and Clinics at firstname.lastname@example.org.