Tips on how to prevent poisoning

Unintentional poisoning is more common than most of us think. We need to be aware of harmful and dangerous chemicals, plants and animals in our environment so that we are better prepared to take care of our families. 

wcg poison safety infographic

What is poison?

Any substance that can cause illness or death of a person when it’s been swallowed, inhaled or touched can be classified as a poison.

Types of poison

Sources of poisonous substances can be from common household cleaning agents, to plants and animals found in the garden or recreational areas. Below are some examples of the various sources of poison which you need to be mindful of: 

1. Snake bites

Poisonous snakes can be very dangerous and you need to be on the lookout for them especially when going hiking. It is important to remember that snakes are shy animals, and tend to avoid people. They only strike people when they are threatened or have been hurt. 
Before visiting a recreational area, or going on a hiking trip, you should:

  • find out if the area you’ll be visiting has a medical facility nearby,
  • wear hiking boots, shoes or sandals and not walk barefoot, and 
  • wear long pants.

Snakes tend to rest underneath fallen leaves, sandy crevasses, rocky terrain and tall grass. 

Types of poisonous snakes found in the Western Cape 

Cape cobra

If you’ve been bitten by this flat-headed type of snake which has a neurotoxic bite (affects the nervous system), it’s recommended that you apply a wide crepe bandage firmly above the bitten area (as tightly as for a sprained ankle). This will slow the spread of the venom to vital organs like the heart and lungs. Find medical attention urgently. 

Puff adder

Identified by its brown and black v-pattern, bites can lead to extensive swelling, blistering and skin damage  life-threatening complications may develop between 6-24 hours. 

The puff adder has a cytotoxic (toxic to living cells) bite. Comforting and reassuring the patient is a very important part of the first aid treatment. Try to get a good description of the snake to ensure that the correct antivenom is given.  

If you get bitten by a snake you must seek medical help immediately. If you’re alone, keep calm and ask or phone for help immediately. Don’t walk too fast or run as this speeds up the distribution of the venom in your body.

2. Scorpion stings 

Scorpions are usually found outside the home - mostly under stones or in sandy areas.  They’re active at night and you must always bear the following in mind:

  • Wear shoes when you go outside after sunset.
  • Even though most scorpions are not poisonous you should still seek medical assistance or contact your nearest poison centre if you’ve been stung.
  • If a child has been stung, take them to the emergency room immediately.
  • You can apply crushed ice on the sting to minimise the pain.

3. Spider bites 

Although most spiders are not poisonous or harmful to us, you still need to be careful when you find one in your home.

Here are the types of spiders you should be on the lookout for in and around your home: 

a. Rain and baboon spiders 

These spiders can be described as light brown in colour and not big in size. Their bites can be very painful but are not poisonous to people.

b. Brown and Black  button spiders

  • Colour varies from light brown to black,legs are small and the abdomen (stomach) is big.
  • They’re often found around and in the house, beneath window sills, garden furniture and post-boxes.
  • Their bites are usually very painful. Symptoms can include muscle pain, cramps and weakness in your legs. 
  • You should seek immediate medical assistance, as most cases require  anti-venom. 

c. Sac and violin spiders 

  • Sac spiders  are brown but are slightly shinny and bigger in size while violin have extremely long legs and are brown in colour with the stomach being bigger than the head.
  • You’re most likely to find these spiders at night and they’re often found in the folds of curtains, under clothes, behind picture frames and in the dark corners of cupboards and drawers.  They have cytotoxic venom - the bite is painless and looks like a mosquito bite. 
  • After a few days swelling may develop which is painful and eventually forms a large lesion. No anti-venom is available, but you’ll need to get antibiotics to treat the lesion and to prevent infection and tissue damage. 


4. Poisonous plants

Poisonous plants can be found in almost every garden in South Africa. Usually these are only life-threatening when eaten. It’s important that you seek immediate medical assistance if you suspect that a poisonous plant has been eaten.  

Common plants which are poisonous include: dumb cane, elephant’s ear, arum lily and delicious monster.  These plants contain calcium oxalate crystals and if you chew some parts of them you may feel pain in the mouth. When your children are playing outside, keep a close eye on them so that they don’t put any unknown leaves, berries or stems into their mouths.  

5. Marine and animal poisoning

Bluebottles are often very common along our coastline, and are considered poisonous. They have specialised stinging cells which may discharge during contact. Stings result in painful and itchy skin eruptions.

If you’ve been stung by a bluebottle while at the beach, you should:

  • avoid scratching or rubbing the stung area,
  • wash it off with seawater,
  • use vinegar to help neutralise the toxin, 
  • physically remove the tenticles by scraping off the exposed area with the edge of a sharp knife or a plastic card, for example a bank card, and 
  • use calamine lotion or immerse in very warm water.

6. Bee stings

Here are some things you can bear in mind when you encounter bees: 

  • Sugary foods and drinks will attract bees and wasps so be careful what you eat outdoors.
  • Throat stings may be very dangerous, so look inside the cold drinks before you take a sip, alternatively keep your beverage in a bottle with a cap. 
  • Rinse your garbage and recycling bins and keep lids on them.
  • Don't walk barefoot and don’t wear loose-fitting clothes.
  • If a bee is flying around your head - keep still and don’t swat at it.

The majority of stings cause only minor problems, but severe symptoms like allergic reactions may occur. If you know you’re allergic or you’re not sure, don’t spend too much time gardens full of flowers. 

If you get stung by a bee:

  • remove the stinger as soon as possible, and
  • look for symptoms of an allergic reaction (swelling, itchiness, difficulty in swallowing and breathing). 

If these symptoms are present, immediately go to a healthcare facility. You can take an antihistamine and if it was prescribed in the past use epinephrine (Epipen). 

If you don’t have any allergic symptoms you can simply wash the area with soap and water and apply ice to the sting for 20 minutes. 

You can take ibuprofen or paracetamol to ease the pain and apply a calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream to the sting site.


Household items

The following items should be kept in locked cupboards, original containers or should not be left unattended when in use so that children are safe from them:

  • bleach,
  • detergents,
  • dishwashwasher liquid,
  • turpentine, and
  • paraffin.

Poison prevention tips

Share this information with grandparents, family members, friends, caregivers and babysitters to make sure that everyone stays safe this festive season:

  1. Keep the poison centre’s 24/7 emergency number 0861 555 777 on your cell phone or near your landline. 
  2. Teach your small children to "ask an adult first" before they put anything into their mouths.
  3. Keep all medicines, including herbal and homeopathic medication, vitamins and minerals and over the counter medication in a locked cabinet where children can’t reach it.
  4. If guests bring medicines and other personal products, such as makeup and perfumes, into your home you can also keep them in a safe place such as a locked cupboard.
  5. Don’t leave opened gifts such as perfume, bubble bath, button batteries, and alcohol unattended and in reach of small children.
  6. Make sure that you keep glasses containing alcoholic beverages away from children, or that it’s emptied immediately after use.
  7. Various household products such as chocolate, ibuprofen, and lilies can be toxic to your animals and pets, so make sure they don’t ingest it. 
  8. Make sure insect repellents are kept out of the reach of children. 
  9. Button batteries and magnets should be kept out of reach of children and pets, because they’re easy to swallow and can cause serious harm. Be on the lookout for button batteries in some toys and watches and make sure to keep an eye on children playing with these items.
  10. Poison-proof your luggage while traveling by taking a few minutes to inspect and child-proof the surroundings. Look under beds and furniture for stray pills or foreign bodies. Keep medications and personal hygiene items such as mouthwashes out of the reach of children. 
  11. Check your purse for potential hazards.

Be aware of any medications or cosmetics that may be in your handbag. Store handbags out of the reach of young children.

The content on this page was last updated on 27 November 2017