Preparing for a new baby: Steps for avoiding accidental poisonings

If you are expecting a new baby or have young children in your home, taking steps to prevent accidental poisonings is a crucial part of home safety. Many common items in and around your home may be poisonous, presenting risks for newly crawling or walking babies, who explore the world by touching things and putting them in their mouth.

The most common things babies get into while exploring like this are medications, vitamins and supplements, cleaning products, personal care products such as hand sanitizer and deodorant, toys and foreign objects, plants and mushrooms, and pesticides like ant traps and bug spray.

Some of the most serious poisonings involve prescription pain medications, marijuana, ADHD medications, cough and cold medications, and certain foreign objects like batteries, magnets and ammunition.

Following the safety tips below can help prevent many poisonings. Kids act fast, though, and sometimes despite our best efforts they will get into something, or we’ll make a mistake when giving them medication. That’s why it’s important to have the poison center number saved in your phone: 1-800-222-1222. The poison center is staffed by specially trained nurses and pharmacists who provide fast, expert help at no cost to you. With help from the poison center, 95% of poisonings involving young children can be treated at home. You can also reach us by text message by sending the word POISON to 85511 or by chatting live with our poison experts here on our website.

Making your home safer

Tips for home safety and medication safety:

  • Store all potential poisons up high, out of reach of children, in a locked cabinet if possible. Keep purses, luggage and diaper bags out of reach of children as well.
  • Store products in their original containers, and keep all nonfood items separate from food and drink.
  • Put the cap back on immediately and put products away as soon as you are finished using them.
    Be sure to replace the safety cap tightly right after using a product

    Image from the Up and Away campaign. Visit their site for more resources related to safe storage.

  • Read the label on medications, cleaners and other products, and carefully follow the instructions each time you use them.
  • When giving medication to a child, use the measuring tool provided with the medication or another marked measuring tool like a teaspoon or tablespoon. Do not use silverware or serving spoons.
  • Do not call medication “candy.”
  • Get rid of products you no longer need, such as expired medications or old pesticides, safely and promptly. Call your town office for guidance on disposal.
  • Be prepared for poison emergencies: store the poison center’s number, 1-800-222-1222, in your phone contacts and put a magnet on your refrigerator. Request a magnet online or by calling the hotline.

The NNEPC was pleased to assist Safe Kids VT with its Preparing for Baby booklet, which featured a modified version of this post. Download the booklet from the UVM Medical Center Safe Kids page.


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Calling the poison center can save you time and help our hospital workers

While vaccine rollouts promise some light at the end of the tunnel, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a toll on health care providers, with many hospitals stretched thin by the number of coronavirus patients they are treating, the extra precautions they have to take and other pandemic-related challenges.

Meanwhile, surveys indicate that fear of going to the hospital during the pandemic has led many people to avoid seeking the urgent or even emergency care they need. This is dangerous, and it’s important to seek appropriate care in a medical emergency, because the long-term effects can be much worse if you delay.

However, in many situations, emergency care is not necessary, and you can help our hospital workers greatly by avoiding an unnecessary trip. That’s where the poison center can help. Our poison specialists are available 24/7 to provide free, immediate, expert advice in cases of potential poisoning—and that includes a lot more situations than you might think. Here are just a few examples:

  • Your child swallowed a cleaning product, medication, vitamin, toy or other household item
  • You took your medication twice.
  • You took your spouse’s medication or your pet’s medication.
  • You took your nighttime medication in the morning.
  • You got a cleaning product in your eye.
  • Your skin feels irritated after you’ve used a cleaning product or spilled some on yourself.
  • You drank a cleaner or other product that was being stored in a juice bottle.
  • You feel sick after using marijuana or vaping a nicotine product.

Most of the time in cases of potential poisoning, our experts will be able to provide all the treatment information you need over the phone. In fact, 9 out of 10 times someone calls from home we are able to help them right there—and it’s 95% of the time when the case involves a child 12 or younger. In other cases, our experts will direct you to the best place for additional help, whether that’s the emergency department, your doctor’s office, your pharmacist or another health care provider. And in those cases we’ll work with your other providers to make sure you get the best and most efficient care possible.

Calling the poison center can help you avoid the time, expense and anxiety of a trip to the hospital, and it also helps our front-line hospital workers focus on those who need help the most. It’s a win-win. Save the poison center number, 1-800-222-1222, in your phone today. And remember you can also reach our experts by text message by sending the word POISON to 85511 or by chatting with us online.

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Lead poisoning is still an issue in Northern New England

Lead poisoning remains a concern in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, where we have some of the country’s oldest housing. Lead paint was widely used in houses built before 1950 and continued to be used in some houses until 1978.

When lead paint ages, it begins to peel and crack, turning into lead chips and lead dust. These can be swallowed by young children who are exploring their environment.

A child with lead poisoning may not show obvious signs of it, but there can be serious effects, including problems with learning, attention and behavior that can affect them throughout their lives.

Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont all now require that children be tested for lead at 12 and 24 months old. Contact your doctor to find out how to set up testing.

In addition, if your home was built before 1978, have it tested for lead. Visit your state’s lead program page for information on how:

Adults may also be at risk of lead poisoning, especially if they remove old lead paint without taking appropriate precautions. Visit your state’s lead program page above for information on safe remediation of lead paint.

If someone has swallowed or inhaled lead, call the poison center at 1-800-222-1222, text us by sending the word POISON to 85511 or chat online. We’re available 24/7 to help in poison emergencies or to answer other questions you have about lead poisoning.

You can also visit the lead page in our A-Z Poison Index for more details about lead and lead poisoning.

Chipping paint photo by Bart Everson. Creative Commons 2.0.

Hunting and fishing safety

With hunting season upon us, remember to keep all hunting and fishing products out of the reach of children at all times, even if you are just leaving the room momentarily.

Every year the NNEPC manages cases of children swallowing lead sinkers, lead pellets or other lead ammunition, which can result in lead poisoning.

Products that do not contain lead can also cause problems if swallowed. They may get stuck in the child’s food pipe or intestines and require medical help to remove.

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Practice safe canning to avoid botulism

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have sparked a renewed interest in canning as Americans spend more time at home. While canning can be a good way to preserve food for future use, it’s critical to take steps to prevent botulism.

What is botulism?

Botulism is a rare but potentially deadly illness caused by a toxin produced by certain germs, most notably the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. Foods that have been improperly canned, preserved or fermented are among the most commons sources of this toxin, which affects the nervous system.

Low-acid foods are more likely to contain this poison when they are not preserved in the right way. Some examples are:

Image by Lolame from Pixabay

  • Asparagus
  • Beets
  • Corn
  • Green beans
  • Mushrooms
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Some tomatoes
  • Meats
  • Fish and seafood

You cannot see, smell or taste the toxin, making prevention essential.

While foodborne botulism is not common, it can be fatal if it is not caught early and treated effectively.

What are the symptoms of botulism?

Symptoms typically appear 12 to 36 hours after exposure, but can begin as early as 6 hours after or as long as 10 days later.

Early symptoms often include nausea or stomach ache, sometimes with constipation.

The effects on the nervous system usually begin in the head and face. Symptoms can include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Dry mouth
  • Trouble swallowing and speaking

The illness can go on to cause muscle weakness, including in your arms and legs and in the muscles used to breathe, making breathing difficult.

How can I prevent botulism?

The best way to prevent foodborne botulism is by carefully following the instructions in the USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning. We recommend taking a canning or food preservation course with your local university extension, as well.

When canning low-acid foods, it is important to use a pressure canner, according to the CDC. Do not use an electric, multicooker appliance, even if it has a canning button. It is unclear if these are effective in preventing botulism. Carefully follow the processing times given in the USDA guide.

Pay close attention to your cans when you are ready to open them. Throw out any canned food—whether it’s store bought or home canned—if it is leaking or bulging or if it looks damaged or cracked. Throw out the food if the container spurts liquid or foam when you open it or if the food is discolored or smells bad.

Store any opened canned or pickled foods in the refrigerator.

The CDC recommends caution when you are throwing out possibly contaminated food. Use rubber or latex gloves before you handle it. Put the food in a sealable plastic bag, then wrap another plastic bag around it and tape it shut. Place the bags in a trash receptacle outside the house. Use a bleach solution to wipe up any spills. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least two minutes afterwards.

What should I do if I think I have botulism?

If you are showing signs of botulism, contact the poison center right away. The poison center’s experts can tell you what steps you need to take immediately and direct you to the best place for further care. Call us at 1-800-222-1222, chat with us online or text POISON to 85511.

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Poison safety during a pandemic: Guidance for school nurses, teachers and daycare providers

During the COVID-19 pandemic, poison centers across the country have seen increases in certain types of poisonings. These poisoning risks will be of concern to teachers, nurses and other staff members as they return to school under unique circumstances. The NNEPC has prepared this post to help school staff members, daycare providers and others working with children and teens safely manage the increased levels of cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing brought on by the pandemic.

Hand sanitizer safety

Proper hand hygiene is important in preventing the spread of illnesses such as COVID-19. Washing your hands with soap and water is best, but alcohol-based hand sanitizers are a good alternative when soap and water are not available or not practical.

However, increased availability of hand sanitizer increases the risk of ingestions:

  • Pre-school-aged children may swallow hand sanitizer unknowingly or accidentally.
  • Young school-aged children and preteens may swallow hand sanitizer in response to dares or to show off.
  • Teenagers may swallow hand sanitizer deliberately for the alcoholic effects.

Swallowing enough hand sanitizer can lead to intoxication and related effects. For young children this may take only a little more than a mouthful. These effects can include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Vomiting, with a risk of choking on vomit

In addition, the FDA has identified certain brands of hand sanitizer that inappropriately contain methanol or 1-propanol. These toxic alcohols are not safe ingredients for hand sanitizer and can cause more severe symptoms and even death if they are swallowed.

Because of these risks, keep hand sanitizer in a safe place where students cannot access it and supervise all use of hand sanitizer  .

Cleaner and disinfectant safety


Classroom photo by Flickr user alamosbasement. Creative Commons 2.0.

Most accidental exposures to chemicals such as cleaning products and disinfectants involve splashes in the eye, skin irritation or burns, or breathing in fumes—either from using the product without ventilating or from mixing chemicals together. Swallowing may also be an issue, especially with young children who are exploring.

Things to consider:

  • Effects of these exposures may be immediate but they can also be delayed for minutes or even several hours.
  • Many products that do not cause irritation from a single use may be more irritating when used frequently.
  • Some people are more sensitive to chemicals than others are. Fumes may cause breathing difficulty for people with asthma or other lung conditions.

When using cleaners and disinfectants, take these safety steps:

  • Read and follow the label instructions each time you use a product.
  • Use gloves and ventilate the area while cleaning. Goggles may be appropriate if the product could splash in your eyes.
  • Avoiding mixing cleaning products—use only one product at a time.
  • Avoid using cleaning products while students are present.
  • Store cleaning products in places where students cannot access them.
  • Keep products in their original containers whenever possible. If you must put a cleaning product in a different container, be sure it is clearly labeled and stored far away from food, drinks and medications.

The poison center is a 24/7 resource

The NNEPC is here 24 hours a day at 1-800-222-1222 to provide fast, expert advice, whether a student has swallowed hand sanitizer, someone is having symptoms from a cleaning product exposure, or in any other case of potential poisoning. These situations can include cases of students eating plants or berries on school grounds, medications errors or deliberate misuse of medication, mishaps in chemistry classes, gas leaks and many others.

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NNEPC welcomes new medical director, attending physician

Dr. Mark Neavyn, NNEPC Medical Director The Northern New England Poison Center is pleased to welcome Dr. Mark Neavyn as our new medical director.

Dr. Neavyn comes to us from Worcester in his home state of Massachusetts, where he was an emergency medicine physician for UMass Memorial Medical Group and an associate professor for UMass Medical School, mentoring toxicology fellows.

Dr. Neavyn earned his MD from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 2006 and completed his residency at Drexel University/MCP-Hahnemann. He trained as a medical toxicologist at UMass Medical School before serving as the director of medical toxicology at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. While in Connecticut he provided toxicology consultation for the Connecticut Poison Control Center and led residency education in toxicology.

As the NNEPC’s medical director, Dr. Neavyn will oversee the clinical management of calls to the center, provide toxicology consultation to other health care providers and provide toxicology education to physicians in training. He will also practice emergency medicine at Maine Medical Center.

The NNEPC is also pleased to welcome Dr. Caitlin Bonney as an attending physician for medical toxicology. Dr. Bonney has joined Maine Medical Center as an emergency medicine physician, and will assist in providing toxicology consultation for the NNEPC.

Dr. Bonney completed emergency medicine training at UMass in 2017 and a medical toxicology fellowship at the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver in 2019.

She joins us from UNLV in Las Vegas, where she was an attending physician and toxicologist.

Dr. Tammi Schaeffer, former NNEPC Medical DirectorWhile we are excited to welcome Dr. Neavyn and Dr. Bonney to our team, we are saddened by the departure of Dr. Tammi Schaeffer, who has taken a position with Johnson & Johnson in her home state of New Jersey.

Dr. Schaeffer joined us as medical director in 2013 and is leaving very large shoes to fill. Fortunately for us, Dr. Schaeffer will continue to provide toxicology consultation for the NNEPC. We wish her all the best in her new role!

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NNEPC releases presentation on COVID-related poisonings

In this 10-minute presentation, NNEPC educator Gayle Finkelstein discusses some of the types of poisonings we’ve been seeing more frequently since the pandemic started and provides some prevention steps you can take to keep yourself and your family safe at home.

We also have a fact sheet available as a free download from our shop covering COVID-related poisonings.

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NNEPC sees uptick in false hellebore poisonings

Young false hellebore photo by Lindsey (Flickr user eccentric virgo), Creative Commons 2.0.

Every spring the Northern New England Poison Center manages a number of poisonings resulting from foragers eating false hellebore by mistake, and we’ve seeing a particular spike in cases this year. Most of these patients end up in the hospital for evaluation and treatment. Many end up needing heart medications for hours or even days.

False hellebore (Veratrum  viride) is a highly poisonous plant that can be mistaken for a prized wild edible, the wild leek, or ramp (Allium tricoccum). False hellebore grows wildly in wet soil throughout our region, often in the same areas as ramps, and the two can look especially similar early in the season. False hellebore grows 2-8 feet tall with a thick green stem, large, ribbed leaves and hairy, star-shaped flowers. Ramps, on the other hand, do not have ribbed leaves, and they have an onion-like smell.

Visit our false hellebore A-Z page for more information.

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Staying safe while staying home

For more information, see our COVID-related poisonings fact sheet

“My daughter licked some hand sanitizer. Should I be worried?”

“I mixed bleach with vinegar and now I’m having a hard time breathing. Will I be okay?”

“I got disinfectant on my food. Is it safe to eat?”

“My grandson got into my purse and ate some of my joint cream. What should I do?”

The poison center gets calls like this every day—and we’ve been getting even more of them since we all started social distancing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes more calls about young children getting into potential poisons, but also an even bigger increase in calls about possible poisonings in adults.

Most poisonings happen at home, and with families spending more time at home, that means even more opportunity for poisonings—and that’s without adding in all the other changes we’re making during the pandemic. Here are just a few examples of new situations that can make poisonings more likely:

  • Having to working from home while also taking care of young children
  • Having extra medications, cleaning supplies and other products on hand to be sure to have a sufficient supply
  • Trying to be extra careful about cleaning our hands and surfaces in our home

With all the changes, know that the poison center is still here for you 24/7 if there is a possible poisoning in your home. You can call us at 1-800-222-1222, chat with us online, or text POISON to 85511.

There are also some simple steps you can take to prevent poisonings in your home.

Store products safely

  • Keep all medications, cleaning products, hand sanitizer and other potentially poisonous products up high, out of the reach of children—in a locked cabinet if possible.
  • Store products in their original containers. Make sure the tops are on tight and that spray bottle nozzles are turned to the off position. If you make your own cleaning products at home, be sure to clearly label the container.
  • Put products away as soon as you get home from the store, and put them away immediately after using them every time.
  • Pay special attention to products that may not usually be in the house, such as medications you keep in your work bag or purse. Maybe you have an older relative staying with you who has medications in their suitcase. See the Poison Purse graphic below for some examples of additional products.

Use products safely

  • Read and carefully follow the directions on the label every time you use a medication, cleaner or other product. Only use a product for the reasons listed on the label. Do not use someone else’s prescription medication or let others use your prescriptions.
  • Do not mix cleaning products unless the label tells you to. Mixing products, such as mixing bleach with vinegar or ammonia, can create harmful fumes.
  • Do not use bleach, disinfectant sprays or disinfectant wipes on skin. Do not drink or inhale bleach or disinfectants. These products are for cleaning surfaces in your home and it is neither safe nor effective to put them in your body.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, especially before and after removing food from packaging, before preparing food and before eating. When you can’t use soap and water, alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good second choice. Be sure to supervise young children when using hand sanitizer.
  • Store the poison help line, 1-800-222-1222, in your phone—mobile readers can download a contact card from our website. We are here to help 24/7, both in poison emergencies and when you have questions about medications, product safety or other poison-related topics.
Poison Purse

Image copyright 2007 University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinic Authority Board

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Chloroquine death highlights importance of medication safety during pandemic

In a high-profile case last month, an Arizona man died and his wife needed to be hospitalized after they swallowed an aquarium product to try to prevent getting COVID-19. The product contained a form of chloroquine, a chemical that is also found an anti-malaria drug.

The medical forms of chloroquine and a related chemical, hydroxychloroquine, are prescribed for certain conditions, like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. They are still being studied as a possible treatment for COVID-19, and because of the pandemic, the FDA is allowing doctors to give these drugs to COVID-19 patients in certain circumstances. However, it’s important to understand that these medications are only safe if used in very specific ways, and they can be dangerous or even deadly if they are used in the wrong way.

This is not the only instance of people taking unsafe steps to try to prevent the illness. In some cases people have become sick after taking medications meant for cows, because the medications are used to prevent other types of coronaviruses—not the one that causes COVID-19—in those animals. Animal medications have not been tested on humans and therefore cannot be considered safe and effective.

We are all trying to do our best to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and medication safety is as important as ever. Here are some important things to remember:

  • Only take prescription medications if they have been prescribed to you. Follow your doctor’s instructions carefully, and don’t share your prescription medications with anybody else.
  • Only use over-the-counter medications for reasons listed on the product label, and carefully follow all the instructions on the label.
  • Do not use nonmedical products to treat an illness or condition, unless your doctor tells you to.

While there are studies underway, experts are not yet sure whether hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine or other medications will prevent or treat COVID-19. The best things we can do right now are to follow these basic guidelines:

  • Stay home except when necessary.
  • Wash your hands frequently—or use hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available—and avoid touching your face.
  • Keep at least 6 feet away from people who don’t live with you.
  • Wear a face covering in public—remembering to still stay 6 feet away from others.

Please see the CDC’s website for a full list of recommendations.

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Effects of marijuana use during pregnancy and breastfeeding

Download this as a printable fact sheet


Studies suggest that using marijuana while pregnant or breastfeeding may have negative affects on the baby’s development. While these studies have been limited so far, the Northern New England Poison Center recommends avoiding marijuana use if you are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or breastfeeding.

Marijuana Use During Pregnancy

THC, the chemical in marijuana that causes the high, crosses the placenta into the fetus during pregnancy. Babies exposed to THC in the womb may have some increased risks.

  • Birth defects. The baby may be more likely to have defects related to:
    • Brain and skull development
    • Heart development
    • Development of the esophagus, intestines and diaphragm
  • Premature birth. The baby may:
    • Be born early
    • Have a low birth weight
    • Need special hospital care
  • Behavior and learning problems in life. These can include:
    • Hyperactivity
    • Impulsiveness
    • Inattention
    • Trouble with reading and spelling
    • Trouble with abstract reasoning and visual problem solving

Marijuana Use While Breastfeeding

THC enters breast milk and will be passed on to the baby when breastfeeding. Even after stopping use, marijuana will remain in the milk for days. Pumping and dumping may lower the baby’s THC exposure but it will not eliminate it.

It’s unclear at this time what effect marijuana use while breastfeeding has on a child’s long-term development.


There is not enough research to say for sure how marijuana use in pregnancy or while breastfeeding will affect the baby. Findings are often based on small numbers of people, and many mothers in the available studies also smoked tobacco, drank alcohol or used other drugs. The effects of use while breastfeeding are especially hard to single out because many mothers also used marijuana during pregnancy, which likely has a larger effect.

However, there is enough evidence of possible negative effects that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that marijuana be avoided during pregnancy. In addition, it is best for women who are breastfeeding to avoid using marijuana because of the possible negative effects.

Further Reading

Ryan, S.A., et al., Marijuana Use During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding: Implications for Neonatal and Childhood Outcomes. Pediatrics, 2018. 142(3).

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Podcast: Suicide attempts in Vermont

In the latest episode of our Poison Ed podcast, NNEPC Vermont educator Gayle Finkelstein sits down with Dr. Thomas Delaney and Dr. Rebecca Bell of the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine to talk about trends in self-poisoning among Vermont youth. Listen below.


Gayle Finkelstein: Welcome to Poison Ed. This is Gayle Finkelstein, Vermont educator from the Northern New England Poison Center.

Today we are going to talk about suicide in Vermont, specifically focusing on self-poisoning suicide attempts. I’m joined by two guest speakers: Dr. Thomas Delaney, assistant professor at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics; and Dr. Rebecca Bell, pediatric critical care physician and assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. Thank you both for joining us today.

I would like to start off helping our listeners understand the relationship between suicide attempts and poisons.

Using data from the National Poison Data System, which reports information from all 55 poison control centers across the country, researchers found more than 1.6 million children and young adults aged 10 to 24 years attempted suicide by poisoning between 2000 and 2018. The number of children and young adults who have attempted suicide by poisoning has increased in the United States over the past several years. There was a significant increase in the rate of attempts between 2011 and 2018 that was driven predominantly by girls and young women. A total of 71% of all cases reported in a recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics involved females. While the study’s data cannot point to a specific reason behind the increase in self-poisoning, it was noted that social media and internet use have increased significantly during the same period.

The Northern New England poison Center continues to see high numbers of calls from health care providers seeking management consultation, most often related to self-harm attempts. We are seeing females more than males attempting suicide. For females, the 13- to 19-year-old age category had the highest number of cases, and for males it was 20- to 39-year-olds. Suspected suicide attempt remains a significant concern, accounting for 14% of exposures this past year from Vermont.

Dr. Delaney, what recent trends in the Vermont data and U.S. suicide deaths are you seeing?

Dr. Thomas Delaney: Well, unfortunately, Vermont suicide death rates have been trending in the wrong direction for a long time, with over a 30% increase in the rates since 1999. We use rates of people per 100,000 in order to compare across different states and between states and the U.S. as a whole. Nationally, suicide death rates have also been increasing, and the U.S. in recent years has basically been catching up with Vermont’s already higher rates. The trends that we’re seeing are pretty much holding for middle-aged and older people as well as for younger people.

GF: Why are the suicide rates in Vermont so high?

TD: Well that’s a huge question, and it’s really important to distinguish between suicide attempts and suicide deaths, and especially important to note that when we’re talking about young people who attempt to take their lives, they have about 25 suicide attempts for every death and that’s a really different picture than what we see for middle-aged and older folks, who have fewer attempts but are more likely to die from their attempts.

We also have to acknowledge that every person who dies by suicide has their own circumstances, and the causes of the suicide death are often not clear and very complicated. So what’s true for a population of people, which is really what I’m talking about, may not be true for the individuals from the population. And when we think about population-level risk factors that are higher in Vermont:

  • We have an older population—so, we’re one of the oldest states in the U.S. in terms of our mean and median ages
  • We have a high rate of military participation—so there is this effect where nationally veterans die by suicide at a rate about twice the rest of the adult population, and we do have a lot of veterans in our state
  • We have high rates of binge drinking, which is also correlated with suicide deaths
  • We are also a very white state, and interestingly, when we think about different racial groups and suicide risk, white, Caucasian people actually have higher rates than some ethnic minorities and racial groups have.

So I think that’s pretty much the big population-level risk factors. The one I left off—and that is really notable—is the high rates of firearm ownership, as well. So there is a correlation between states having higher rates and easier access to firearms and having higher suicide death rates.

GF: When you identify the specific groups that may be at higher risk, is there one specific group that stands out?

TD: Well when we look at people who actually die by suicide, if you look retrospectively at what they were dealing with, you do see that people who were struggling with serious mental illness and experiencing chronic life stressors are at higher risk for dying by suicide. And in Vermont we see that veterans, as I already mentioned, are about twice as likely to die by suicide than are the rest of the adult population.

In general when we’re thinking about suicide in middle-aged and older people, a lot of times we’re talking about males. So there are, for those ages it’s about four males who die by suicide for every female, and many of those people who die actually fall into the other categories—for example, of struggling with substance abuse, being veterans, rural, social isolation, things like that.

We know that when we’re thinking about younger people, LGBTQ young people in Vermont—and this is based on the Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey—they’re about three times more likely to have felt sad or hopeless every day for the past two weeks, and that’s a marker for major depressive disorder. And the same young people are about four times more likely to have hurt themselves on purpose compared to non-LGBTQ young people. LGBTQ young people in Vermont are also about four times more likely to have made a suicide plan in the past year and four and a half times more likely to have made an actual suicide attempt.

Also thinking about young people and increased risks, we know that students of color are about 50% more likely to have made a suicide plan in the past year, as well as being more than 50% more likely to have made a suicide attempt. We also know that young people and indeed people of all ages with a history of trauma are at elevated risk for suicide deaths and attempts.

GF: Dr. Bell, what is your experience as a physician regarding youth and deliberate self-poisoning?

Dr. Rebecca Bell: So I work in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, so my patients, who are in the Pediatric ICU from a self-poisoning are either critically ill, so experiencing really severe symptoms or are at high risk of experiencing severe symptoms or even death.

What I’ve noticed with my patients is that there’s quite a range. So, many youth have a history of a serious mental health illness like depression or anxiety, but some do not have that history. All of them have some sort of trigger that lead to their self-poisonings, and what my patients generally tell me once they feel better and they can talk about their experience is that maybe they’ve been feeling down or maybe they haven’t been feeling down, but regardless they get in a fight with their parent or friend or something happens at school or something happens on social media, and they take medicines, and oftentimes, afterwards, they tell someone. So they tell a parent, or even more often they tell a friend about the self-poisoning. And what I’ve noticed in Vermont among my patients is that young people are really good at getting help for their friends. So oftentimes the young person will take medicine, then after some time period will text a friend and say what they’ve done, and that friend will immediately tell a parent who then gets help. So that I have found to be really important.

And I think that, you know, young people, every young person is at risk for a self-poisoning, because young people are more impulsive than adults and they engage in more impulsive behaviors, and things that happen in their life that may seem a little bit trivial once you’re older can seem really, really important and young people can be really distressed. So again this breakup of a relationship, or an event at school where someone gets bullied, those can be really, really distressing for young people, and young people are at risk for that happening. So we really want to encourage all families to create safe environments in the home, so that when they have one of these events that they don’t have access to medications are other things that could hurt them.

GF: I had mentioned earlier about a recent study looking at national suicide and self-poisoning, especially regarding sex- and age-specific suicide attempts by self-poisoning. This report indicates that the first episode of deliberate self-poisoning is a strong predictor of subsequent suicide and premature death. While almost all individuals survive their first hospital presentation for self-poisoning, the risk of subsequent suicide was more than fortyfold higher in these patients than among population-based controls.

The highest number of cases nationally poison centers received was in the 13- to 18-year-old age category. For children under 19 years of age the annual suicide attempts by self-poisoning doubled from 2000 to 2018. Serious outcomes also increased 235%.

Overall, suicide attempt rates are increasing in Vermont. The Northern New England Poison Center reported 5,459 suicide attempt cases between 2009 and 2018, with 23 of these resulting in death.

Dr. Delaney, why is having Vermont self-poisoning data is so important?

TD: I think there’s a couple reasons why this is really important data for us to look at. So, Vermont can really differ from other parts of the country and indeed from other parts of New England and the Northeast. We already talked about how we’re a little bit different in terms of owning firearms and some other characteristics as well.

So having these data is really a way of informing and maybe even developing new prevention programs. So we can think about community education. One thing that I’m really interested in is provider education. So how do you support health care, mental health care providers to maybe do screenings? Or how to effectively intervene or make effective referrals to other types of providers when there has been an episode of intentional self-poisoning. And ideally we’d want to use the data and different types of public health approaches to get upstream and actually be preventing the suicide attempts in the first place.

It’s probably also really important that we raise awareness among community members and families and caregivers because ultimately they’re going to be doing a lot of the actual sort of safety steps and a lot of the initial responses when there is a risk of somebody engaging in self-poisoning.

GF: Dr. Delaney, what is the difference between risk factors and warning signs?

TD: Right, so I think of risk factors as being things that are more static and longer term. So a risk factor could be something like struggling with mental illness, where you were previously diagnosed and it may be better over time or a little worse over time, but it’s just something that’s present there for you.

I think of warning size signs as being much more in the moment, and they might be represented as a specific behavior or specific language. So a sort of classic warning sign is people who already have risk factors present may give away their possessions, for example, or they may verbalize something like “I won’t be here next week” or “I won’t be around much longer.” I’d called those warning signs.

GF: OK, and Dr. Bell, what are the clinical impacts on young people who are hospitalized for poisoning suicide attempts?

RB: So we have a number of different treatment modalities we can use in the Pediatric ICU to help take care of youth who are critically ill from their self-poisoning. So we can support their breathing if needed, sometimes with a ventilator if necessary. We can support their heart, their blood pressure, we can treat arrhythmias, treat seizures, fix electrolyte abnormalities. We’ve had to put some young people on dialysis. So in the ICU we have a lot of ways to make young people better. Some medications have antidotes that we can give as well.

But these young people are really sick, sometimes for many days, and there’s always a risky period where we’re not sure if there’s going to be long-term effects, long-term effects on their organs. So it can be a pretty tense time in the ICU for the young person, for their family.

And then once they’ve recovered, they will all end up going to an inpatient psychiatric facility where they can get intensive psychiatric care. Then when they are discharged home there’s a plan made between the psychiatric facility, the pediatrician at home, the family and whatever other therapy and counseling they need when they go home to make a real, again, safe environment for the young person when they leave.

GF: OK, and Dr. Delaney, how is Vermont addressing this problem?

TD: Well Vermont’s really ramped up their efforts in recent years I would say. So as one example, the legislature is supporting the Department of Mental Health to do an initiative called Zero Suicide. So the Department of Mental Health is teaming with the Center for Health and Learning and the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center, and they’re working with the designated agency system that is responsible for a lot of the community-based mental health care in the state, and they’re doing things like doing a lot of workforce development—so training on suicide-specific treatment modalities. For example, there’s one called CAMS—collaborative assessment and management of suicidality. And there’s other aspects of Zero Suicide, as well.

And there’s a big focus on fixing some of the gaps in the system. So one of the gaps that we’ve heard about in the past in our state, and certainly in other places, is handoffs between people who show up in the emergency department who have suicidal ideation or suicide attempt and just then making sure that they actually wind up starting to get care once they’re out of the emergency department. Certainly making links between inpatient hospitalization and care once those people are discharged that Dr. Bell mentioned.

And a lot of education and outreach to mental health providers and community-based providers who weren’t necessarily getting a lot of the suicide prevention-specific sort of training and opportunities that now they’re getting a lot more of. And we know there’s some evidence that actually having those trainings makes the mental health care system and probably also health care providers be more effective in helping their patients.

GF: And Dr. Bell, what are things that all families should be doing in order to keep people from accessing poisons?

RB: Well we tell all families that they should keep medications truly inaccessible to young people, even adolescents. So that means locking up medications, it means when a young person is on a prescription medication that the parent should be the one who sort of controls that medication and gives the young person the medication, and that helps, one, prevent the young person from taking a bunch of that medication, and also makes sure that they’re actually getting it on time when they need it.

And one thing families oftentimes underestimate is how serious and dangerous over-the-counter medications can be. So, many of the patients that I see in my PICU are there and critically ill from over-the-counter medications. So we often don’t think of that as being potentially dangerous, but it can be. So even over-the counter-medications I would say try not to buy in bulk, and again, I would keep those inaccessible and have the young person ask for them and you can give it to them in a controlled manner. And the same thing with of course the parents’ prescription medication. So really all medications should be really inaccessible to the young person.

GF: How about in terms of health care providers, regarding intentional self-poisoning in young people—do you have any advice?

RB: Yeah, I would say all health care providers should really think about, when they’re prescribing a medication, about whether there’s a young person in the house. So I do see some patients who come in who have taken their parent’s medication, for instance, and so if you’re a health care provider, even if you’re treating adults, asking about children in the house is really important, so that if you’re prescribing something that can be dangerous in large quantities that you’re providing some counseling on how to keep that medication inaccessible to the young person. Oftentimes I see cases where, say, a health care provider is prescribing something to an adult or a young person that they’re going to try to see if it helps their symptoms, and then it doesn’t really work, and then you’ve got now this bottle of medications in the home. So I think following up on that, “Oh that medication didn’t work—why don’t you bring that in next time and I can discard that for you?” or the family can discard that. So not having a lot of medication sort of hanging around. And then I think counseling families, again, on keeping medications out of reach.

And I think it’s just really important for families to understand that adolescence is a difficult time and stressful things happen, and a lot of times I do see families who come in that are very surprised by the self-poisoning, and I just really want to emphasize that every young person is at risk for self-poisoning because things happen, stressful things happen, and when something’s accessible to them they may in an impulsive move use it. So remembering that really every adolescent is at risk.

GF: Well those are great points. The poison center also recommends keeping medicines up high and out of reach of children and teenagers, and to really remind parents to be mindful of all medications they keep in their house, and especially the old and expired medications should be disposed of safely, and if you are looking to find guidelines, you can either visit our website at the poison Center at, or also go to the Vermont health department’s website to see how you can properly dispose of your medications safely.

If children are prescribed any medication they need to be monitored like Dr. Bell said closely to ensure it’s being used correctly. Patients attempting suicide most often takes substances easily available to them like Dr. Bell had mentioned, especially over-the-counter medications and prescription medications. It’s also important to remember that many of the cases we see at our poison center and poison centers across the country involve multiple substances.

Do either of you have any other prevention strategies or resources you would like to share with our listeners?

TD: Yeah, I think just building off what Dr. Bell just mentioned, about adolescence being a tricky time for a lot of people, a piece of universal advice for parents and caregivers is to just check in with your kids. And that doesn’t mean necessarily prying—I have two teenage girls and I’m not allowed to pry into their lives at all—but even just checking in and saying “How are you doing?” or “How are things at school?” I think sometimes parents might be surprised by what they learn from doing that.

GF: And Dr. Bell, do you have anything else you want to share?

RB: No.

GF: OK, so our focus today has been on youth, but our poison center is also seeing an increase in patients attempting suicide in those over 60 years of age involving their own medicines. So some of these medications can be quite dangerous in overdose situations.

The Northern New England Poison Center is an integral part of the emergency medical care system and provides fast assistance and necessary assurance to residents and health care providers for Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. In closing I would like to remind you that the poison center is available 24/7—it’s free and confidential—to help in poison emergencies or to just answer poison-related questions. You can reach the poison center toll-free at 1-800-222-1222, you can text POISON to 85511, or you can chat live at The poison center is an important resource available to everyone and it’s right at your fingertips.

So I’d really like to, again, thank Dr. Bell and Dr. Delaney for joining us today and sharing their expertise. Thank you very much.

TD: Thank you.

RB: Thanks for having us.

GF: Thank you for listening to this episode of Poison Ed. If you or someone you know is in crisis, we encourage you to get support by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK, that’s 1-800-273-8255. You can also get support by text. Send the word HOME, that’s H-O-M-E to 741741 from anywhere in the United States, or text VT, for Vermont to the same number, 741741, for Vermont-specific resources. Thank you.

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