Causes of poisoning

In the UK, medications are the most common cause of poisoning and are responsible for almost two in every three cases.

The medications most commonly linked to poisoning are:

However, all medications have the potential to be harmful if taken at too high a dose or taken by someone who has not been prescribed them.

Household products

The second most common cause of poisoning is household products, which account for up to one in four cases.

These can include:

  • cleaning products, such as bleach, caustic soda and disinfectant
  • cosmetics, such as baby oil, shampoo and nail varnish remover
  • DIY products, such as paint, glue and wallpaper paste
  • garden products, such as weedkiller and rat poison

Carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a poisonous, odourless gas produced by the incomplete burning of fuels, such as gas, wood or petrol. These types of fuels are used in many household appliances, such as heaters and cookers.

If appliances are not regularly serviced and well maintained, carbon monoxide can leak from them without you realising, which can cause loss of consciousness and death.

Read more about carbon monoxide poisoning.

Insects and snakes

Bees and wasps inject poison into your skin when they sting you, which can cause pain, swelling and itchiness.

Bites from poisonous snakes can cause diarrhoea and sickness. The adder is the only poisonous snake that lives in the UK.

How severely you are affected by a poisonous bite or sting depends on the amount of venom (poison) injected and whether you are allergic to it.

Read more about insect stings and snake bites.


Food can sometimes cause poisoning if:

  • it goes mouldy
  • it becomes contaminated with bacteria from raw meat
  • it has not been prepared or cooked properly

Read more about food poisoning.


Drinking too much alcohol in a short space of time can also lead to poisoning.

Read more about alcohol poisoning.

Who is at risk?

Poisoning can affect anyone at any age, but children younger than five who are able to walk are most at risk.

This is because they often put things in their mouths without realising it may be harmful. Also, as their bodies are smaller, they are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of certain substances.

The most common substances involved in cases of child poisoning are:

  • cosmetics
  • cleaning products
  • painkillers
  • medications that come in cream, lotion or ointment form
  • foreign bodies, such as small coins or batteries
  • cough and cold medications
  • plants
  • vitamin supplements
  • antibiotics

Older children and adults who self-harm or have suicidal thoughts may intentionally poison themselves. It's estimated that around one in every four cases of poisoning are intentional.

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