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What you need to know about poison control

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This story is sponsored by University of Utah Health. Learn more about University of Utah Health.


On a scale of 1 to 10, the anxiety level in the McGuffees’ Moab home spiked one night to “probably a 14 or 15” when Brandon and Monica McGuffee discovered that their one-year-old son, Dylan, had chewed through a plastic detergent pouch.

The worst thoughts that a parent can think swept through Brandon’s mind after reading on the package to call Poison Control if ingested.

“I thought ‘My son is going to die,’” Brandon said. “I was really terrified.”

A drawer forbidden to Dylan had been left open by an older brother, and when Dylan spotted the little packet with a blue swirl on top, he couldn’t resist.

“It was all stuck in his teeth after he took a bite of it,” Monica said. “I can only imagine what he thought it could have been.”

Dylan knew immediately that it wasn’t blue raspberry or anything edible.

“He started vomiting and uncontrollably crying because he was scared too,” Brandon said.

The parents remembered the magnet on their fridge and dialed the Utah Poison Control Center.

“When you call the poison center, you speak directly with an expert — usually a pharmacist or nurse with toxicology training — who can quickly assess the entire picture and give specific treatment recommendations,” said Barbara Crouch, Pharm.D., MSPH, director of the center. “We receive calls about everything from medication overdoses to snakebites to swallowed batteries.”

With a poison specialist on the line, relief flooded the tense McGuffee home.

“She was super polite and super calming,” Brandon said. “She said vomiting will occur; the body will get rid of it. ”

No frantic rush to the hospital would be necessary, no stomach pumping, no ER bill. The poison specialist assured the McGuffees that their son would be back to normal that night.

About 60 percent of calls to the poison center involve children younger than six. Parents’ first instinct is often to call a spouse, Google for answers or rinse their child’s mouth with water. In the case of detergent, water only makes the problem worse, causing the soap to foam.

“It’s so important to speak with a poison expert immediately and not consult the Internet first because you can get wrong or outdated information, such as a recommendation to induce vomiting,” Crouch said. “That’s not something we do anymore.”

Assured their child was OK, the McGuffees hung up the phone.

“She told me she would call back in one hour for a follow-up and just check on him,” Brandon said. “It was exactly one hour and two minutes when she called back — that’s as exact as you can get.”

While many people know that they can rely on the center in their most frightening moments, the untold story of the Utah Poison Control Center is that it saves the community a lot of money. The center leverages an annual budget of less than $3 million to save the state, residents and health care payers more than $47 million a year in unnecessary care.

When a patient needs emergency treatment for poisoning, the center provides clinical toxicology consultation to the health care professionals providing treatment. Studies have shown that the length of stay in a hospital when a poison center is consulted is about 1.2 days shorter than if the center hadn’t been brought into the loop.

Along with taking calls from the public and hospital staff, the poison center provides expertise and counsel during public health emergencies, serves as a safety advocate dedicated to educating the public about poison prevention, and researches emerging poisoning trends and shares findings with local public health agencies. The center can even provide first responders with vital information such as, in snakebite cases, which hospitals have the antidote in stock.

Of course, none of the poison center’s roles are more important than simply being there at any hour of the day or night to give peace of mind to worried parents.

“In essence, if your child was lost and then you find them completely safe, it’s the same relief factor,” said Brandon of the rollercoaster ride he took that night. “There are a million things that go through your mind, and all of a sudden they’re not a factor anymore.”

To learn more about the Utah Poison Control Center. If you suspect exposure to poison, call 800-222-1222.