Summer Poison Safety

Be prepared and take steps to prevent summer outdoor poisoning hazards.

For many Americans, summer means spending more time outdoors, enjoying everything the season has to offer – cooking and entertaining outside, hiking, camping, gardening, boating, going to the beach, and so much more! Temperatures are warmer, the days are longer, and the kids are out of school. What could go wrong?

Managing a call every 10-11 seconds, the nation’s 55 poison control centers stay busy year-round, but they do get more calls during the warmer months. Between June and August of 2015, poison centers managed approximately 740,000 calls, about 78% of which were human exposure cases. As you might expect, in the summer months, poison centers manage more calls about bites, stings, plants, and pesticides than they do at other times. They also take more calls about some dangerous situations you may not expect, like kids getting into tiki-style torch oil and lighter fluid, or the beer and liquor that Mom or Dad bought for the family cookout! Here are some tips to help ensure you and your loved ones enjoy a safe, fun, and poison-free summer.

On this page:

I.  Bites & Stings

a.  Marine

b.  Insect & Spider

c.  Snakebites

II.  Plants and Mushrooms

III.  Outdoor Cooking & Entertaining

a.  Hydrocarbons (i.e. Lamp oil, lighter fluid, and tiki-style torch fuel)

b.  Alcohol

c.  Food Safety

d.  Fireworks

IV.  Pesticides


I. Bites & Stings

a. Marine "Bites" & Stings

LionfishFor lots of Americans, summer is prime beach-going time. Unfortunately, each year thousands of beachgoers’ fun is cut short by a jellyfish sting, stepping on a sea urchin, or even being “stung” by a lionfish. Sea urchins are non-aggressive marine animals that live in shallow, rocky areas, or hide in sandy cervices. They have globe to flattened-shaped bodies covered with spines. The spines themselves are not venomous, but some species have venomous glands at the base of these spines, which can be injected with the spine when it meets the skin of a diver or swimmer! A puncture injury from a sea urchin can cause swelling and redness around the area, which may lead to severe pain and infection. Lionfish is a non-native, invasive type of fish that is increasing in population in U.S. waters. Unlike jellyfish, which have special stinging cells on their tentacles, spines on lionfish fins actually puncture the skin and release venom that can cause swelling, blistering, and intense pain.  

What to do if someone is stung by a jellyfish: Remove the tentacles by rinsing them off or scraping them off with a credit card or dull knife. Do not remove them with your bare fingers. Immerse the affected area in hot water for 20 minutes. This may inactivate the venom and provide some pain relief. Use an over-the-counter steroid cream if the pain and swelling continues. If needed, take over-the-counter pain medicine as directed by the label. Sorry; it’s a myth that urinating on a jellyfish sting will help relieve the pain. Call Poison Help at 1(800) 222-1222 for further treatment advice.  

Sea UrchinWhat to do if someone is “stung” by a lionfish or sea urchin: Gently remove any spines from the wound. Using clean freshwater, completely flush the injured area. Immerse the wound in very hot water for about 30 minutes as soon as possible after the sting occurs.

If you have a first aid kit available, disinfect the wound with antiseptic towelettes and apply antibiotic ointment, if available. If necessary, apply direct pressure to the wound in order to stop the bleeding. If needed, take over-the-counter pain medicine  as directed in package instructions. Call Poison Help at 1(800) 222-1222. The poison center specialist will help you determine if you need medical treatment and can tell you where to go and call ahead for you if you do. 

b. Insect Bites & Stings

Stinging insects like mosquitoes, bees, wasps, and other critters like ticks and spiders love summer as much as we do! Most insect and spider stings or bites can cause red, itchy, or sometimes painful bumps, but poisonous or venomous species can cause more severe reactions. In addition, allergies to bites and stings can be very dangerous.  Finally, there are several infectious diseases that people can get from insects, especially mosquitoes, such as the Zika virus.

Protect Your Health. Read the Label

How to prevent insect bites and stings: Following all directions on the label, apply insect repellent whenever you this summer. Concentrations of up to 30% DEET have been shown to be safe for use on children older than 2 months, but be sure to follow application instructions carefully. Only use bug spray that is meant to be used on skin; never use household insect or pest killer on the skin. Be sure to follow application instructions carefully, and wash off the product once returning indoors. If anyone ingests, inhales, or sprays insect repellant into the eyes, call Poison Help at 1 (800) 222-1222 immediately. If you have general questions about selecting, storing, or using insect repellant and other pesticides, call or visit the National Pesticide Information Center’s website. Also, consider planting pest-repellant plants to help prevent these bites and stings. Consult a master gardener or the National Pesticide Information Center for advice.  spend time outdoors

c. Snakebites (revised June 9, 2016)

Venomous snakes found in the U.S. include rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths or water moccasins, and coral snakes, but not all of these venomous snakes are found everywhere in the U.S. Venomous snakes can be especially dangerous to outdoor workers or people spending more time outside during the warmer months of the year. It has been estimated that 7,000–8,000 people per year are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S., and 5-6 people die. Each year, poison centers receive thousands of calls about snakebites. Most of these calls occur between May and September. Approximately 80% of these poison center calls originate from hospitals and other health care facilities. (That’s right – many hospital doctors, nurses, and pharmacists rely on poison center expertise to help them treat snakebites!) Most snakebites occur when people accidentally step on or come across a snake, frightening it and causing it to bite defensively. By practicing extra caution in snake-prone environments, many of these bites are preventable.    

Snakebite Prevention & Treatment PosterHow to prevent snakebites:

Avoid surprise encounters with snakes: Snakes tend to be active at night and in warm weather. They also tend to hide in places where they are not readily visible, so stay away from tall grass, piles of leaves, rocks, and brush when possible. Avoid climbing on rocks or piles of wood where a snake may be hiding. When moving through tall grass or weeds, poke at the ground in front of you with a long stick to scare away snakes. Watch where you step and where you sit when outdoors. Shine a flashlight on your path when walking outside at night.

Wear protective clothing: Wear loose, long pants and high, thick leather or rubber boots when spending time in places where snakes may be hiding. Also, wear leather gloves when handling brush and debris.

Never touch or handle a snake: Never handle a snake, even if you think it is dead or nonvenomous. Recently killed snakes may still bite by reflex. There have even been cases of detached snakeheads being able to bite, reflexively!

Bring a buddy: If you are planning to spend time in an area that may be home to venomous snakes, it’s best not to go alone in case you are bitten by a snake or have another emergency. If you must go alone, make sure you bring a fully charged mobile telephone, and stay wherever your phone gets a signal.

What to do if you are bitten by a snake:

  • Do not panic; keep still and calm.
  • Call the poison center immediately by dialing the national, free Poison Help number - 1 (800) 222-1222. The experts at the poison center have been specially trained to treat snakebites. Every snakebite is different, and the poison center specialist will tell you what you need to do next, based on your specific situation. If you need immediate medical care, the poison center specialist can tell you where to go and call ahead to the right medical facility to make sure you get the care you need, quickly. If the person who was bitten is having trouble breathing or losing consciousness, call 911 immediately.
  • If you are in a remote location and do not have mobile phone service, ask someone to drive you to the nearest emergency medical facility. Only drive yourself as a last resort. Call Poison Help at 1 (800) 222-1222 as soon as you have telephone service.
  • Keep the part of your body that was bitten straight and at heart-level, unless told otherwise by the specialist at the poison center.
  • Remove all jewelry and tight clothing.
  • Wash the bite with soap and water and cover the bite with a clean, dry dressing, if available, and if doing so does not cause delay.
  • Being able to describe the snake to medical professionals can help them decide on the best treatment for you, so try to remember the color and shape of the snake, but don’t move closer to it. Only take a photograph of the snake if you can do so from a safe distance. You do not need to bring the snake with you in order to get the proper medical treatment.
  • Note the time the bite happened.

It is very important that you do NOT do any of the following:

  • Do not attempt to pick up, kill, or trap the snake.
  • Do not apply a tourniquet or attempt to restrict blood flow to the affected area.
  • Do not cut the wound.
  • Do not attempt to suck out the venom.
  • Do not apply heat, cold, electricity, or any substances to the wound.
  • Do not drink alcohol or caffeinated beverages or take any drugs or medicines.


II. Plants and Mushrooms

The list of plants that may be poisonous or cause severe skin irritation is long, and varies by the region where you live. The warmer temperatures in spring and summer mean that while we spend more time outside, these plants are thriving in backyards and or favorite hiking spots!  Teach children not to eat mushrooms or berries growing outside. Edible mushrooms and even berries can look very similar to toxic species, so the experts at poison centers recommend never eating “picked-from-the-wild” produce. (Even if you are visiting a bona-fide edible berry patch or fruit orchard, it’s best to first wash any soil contaminants or pesticides off of any type of produce before eating it.)

If you have children, pets, or care for anyone mentally disabled, we recommend doing a garden and houseplant inventory to ensure you are aware of any potentially toxic plants growing in your garden, house, or elsewhere on your property. There are a variety of websites that can help you identify toxic plants.  Also, consult a master gardener for advice.

If a person eats or develops a rash from an outdoor or household plant, call Poison Help for advice – 1 (800) 222-1222.


III. Outdoor Cooking & Entertaining

a. Hydrocarbons (i.e. Lamp oil, lighter fluid, and tiki-style torch fuel)

Lamp oil, lighter fluid, and tiki-style torch fuels are hydrocarbons, slick substances that can cause “chemical pneumonia” if even a few drops get into someone’s airway, especially a child’s. These oils are often pleasantly scented and/or colored and are sometimes stored in containers resembling drink bottles. They can resemble beverages.  Always keep these products in their original container and locked up away from children. If someone swallows or inhales any amount of lamp oil, tiki-style torch oil, or lighter fluid, do NOT induce vomiting as this can make the problem worse. Call Poison Help immediately at 1 (800) 222-1222.  

b. Alcohol

For many adults, alcohol is safe when enjoyed in moderation. However, alcohol is known to interact with many prescription and over-the-counter medicines. Make sure that consuming alcohol is safe for you given any medicines you may be taking. Also, consider that alcohol impairs judgment and increases risk-taking, a dangerous combination for swimmers. Finally, hot summer days cause fluid loss through sweating, while alcohol causes fluid loss through increased urination. Spending time in hot weather while drinking alcohol can quickly lead to dehydration or heat stroke.

Alcohol is very dangerous for children.  When it comes to alcohol, children are not miniature adults! Even a small amount of alcohol can cause alcohol poisoning in children.  Alcohol also causes depression of the central nervous system. Children are naturally curious and mimic adult behaviors, so take special care to keep the wine, beer, liquor, and mixed drinks that you enjoy in moderation up and away from children. The alcohol found in mouthwash, hand sanitizers, and other personal care products can also cause alcohol poisoning, so keep these products away from children, too. If you suspect a child has ingested any amount of alcohol, call Poison Help right away at 1-800-222-1222.

c. Food Safety

Food poisoning, also called foodborne illness, is illness caused by ingesting contaminated food. Infectious organisms such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, or their toxins are the most common causes of food poisoning. Infectious organisms or their toxins can contaminate food at any point of processing or production. Contamination can also occur at home if food is incorrectly handled or cooked. The most common symptoms of food poisoning include upset stomach, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and dehydration. Symptoms may range from mild to severe and may differ depending on the causative agent. Severe cases of food poisoning can cause long-term health problems or death.  The CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.  AAPCC offers the following simple food safety tips for preparing and enjoying meals:

PREPARE:

Keep meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs separate from all other foods in your grocery bags, in the refrigerator, and while prepping.

Wash your hands, kitchen surfaces, utensils, and cutting boards frequently, especially after handling or preparing uncooked food and before touching or eating other foods. Wash produce but not eggs, meat, or poultry, which can spread harmful bacteria.

Use the microwave, cold water, or the refrigerator method to defrost your frozen meat or poultry. Do not thaw or marinate these items on the counter, and be sure to cook them immediately after thawing.

COOK:

The bacteria that cause food poisoning multiply quickest in the ‘Danger Zone,’ which is between 40˚ and 140˚ Fahrenheit. In general, it’s best to keep hot food hot, and cold food cold.

Use a food thermometer to check if meat is fully cooked and heated high enough to kill harmful bacteria. Cook turkey until it reaches 165° F.

The safest way to cook stuffing is outside of the turkey in a casserole dish. However, if you choose to cook stuffing inside the turkey, stuff the turkey just before cooking, and use a food thermometer to make sure the center of the stuffing reaches a minimum internal temperature of 165°F. Remove the stuffing immediately after the turkey is finished cooking and place in a separate serving dish.

STORE:

Refrigerate leftovers promptly – within two hours – at 40° F or below to help reduce the risk of bacterial growth.

Prevent cross-contamination by completely and securely covering foods in the refrigerator.

Consume or freeze leftovers within 3-4 days.

Poison centers are available to provide expert, free, and confidential information and treatment advice 24-hours per day, seven days a week, year-round, including holidays. If you have any questions about safe food preparation, or if you or someone you know suspects food poisoning, call the Poison Help line at 1(800) 222-1222. More information on food-borne illness prevention is available here. 

d. Fireworks

Did you know that fireworks are poisonous? Fireworks contain a number of toxic chemicals that can be very dangerous if swallowed.  Keep fireworks away from children and pets. If a person or pet ingests part or all of a firework (including “snake”-type fireworks), call Poison Help at 1 (800) 222-1222 immediately. 


IV. Pesticides

Never use outdoor-use pesticides indoors. Pesticides meant for outdoor use can be more toxic than those designed for indoor use are.

Read and follow all directions on the label, each and every time you use a pesticide. Remember that some products come in a concentrated solution and must be diluted before use.

Only use pesticides in a well-ventilated area and keep kids and pets away during application.

Wear protective clothing like gloves and a mask as directed on the product label, and wash your hands and change your clothes after using pesticides.

Keep pesticides and garden chemicals in their original containers, never in containers that could be mistaken for juice or food. This way there is no question as to what they are, and the instructions are handy. Keep them in a locked cabinet or shed, away from children and pets, and never near food or drinks.

Never use or purchase any pesticide that does not have an EPA registration number, directions for use, or ingredients on the package. Illicitly marketed pesticides are nearly always more toxic than those approved for indoor use.

If someone swallows or inhales a pesticide, or gets a pesticide in the eyes or on the skin, call Poison Help at 1 (800) 222-1222. For general questions about the risks of using or how to select, store, or use insect repellents and other pesticides, call the National Pesticide Information Center at 1 (800) 858-7378 or visit NPIC’s website

Find Your Local Poison Center

Poison centers offer free, private, confidential medical advice 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can reach your local poison center by calling 1-800-222-1222.

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