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Common poisons in the home

Written by Dr. Sylvester Ikhisemojie
~Punch Nigeria. Sunday, July 17, 2016

One of the problems encountered as a result of our increasing urbanisation is the spectre of storing various types of materials at home for several different purposes. One of these is to keep the home free of pests and the other is to maintain a minimum level of health in a stressful environment. Sometimes we keep these harmful substances at home because they are needed as raw materials in making items that have positive use in the home. This may be useful because of the need to diversify personal sources of income or to save money by making the product by yourself at home rather than buying it in a shop or market. Many of these goods may be articles used in making soap or making perfumes or straightforward trade. Here is a brief description of some of those compounds and what to do about them once they have been consumed or are suspected to have been consumed.

Poisons, such as the ones discussed below, would be harmful to people of all age groups. However, the key difference why we shall place more emphasis on the effects on children than on adults is because while children are likely to have consumed the substances in error, adults are more likely to have taken such compounds deliberately, as mostly is the case in suicide attempts. 

Children, especially toddlers, are so prone to accidental consumption of the various compounds mentioned that it is important for all parents and care givers to be aware of the dangers. As a result, people must have the presence of mind to keep all these substances safely away, far from the easy reach of children and stored in secure containers that are child and tamper-proof. These measures will keep most children out of harm's way except for the most obstinate ones. Here, as in other topics we have previously discussed on this page, prevention is better than cure and much easier to bring about if you try her enough.

One of the very common poisons taken by children is kerosene. This is often present in the homes of kerosene sellers and women who cook with that particular kind of fuel. That kind of cooking fuel is associated with underdevelopment; there is no singular member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development where it is so readily available as it is here and in other developing countries. The small scale retailers often sell it in bottles just as the urban poor are likely to buy it in similar bottles and keep at home. The thirsty child just learning to crawl or walk is often likely to assume the content of the bottle is water and attempt to drink of it, which causes hydrocarbon poisoning. Being a compound which produces fumes, this could cause choking and also pneumonia if it goes into the lungs rather than the stomach. As a result of its inhalation, the kind of pneumonia it causes is difficult to treat, and death often results.

The urban environment also makes it logical to see that not enough affordable space is available to every inhabitant. As a result, the home often doubles as the business office such that some materials used for making a variety of things are kept at home where they are easily reached by children. One such compound is caustic soda, also called sodium hydroxide. This substance causes burning of the throat and the oesophagus with serious scar formation. 

This is found in the homes of soap makers. The other chemical compound found in such homes is Sulphuric acid, a corrosive material that causes severe burns and perforation on virtually every organ it might touch. Another acid that may find its way into the home is Hydrochloric acid used by battery chargers. Any of these substances can be mistaken for water by a child and accidentally swallowed.

Another common poison is the button battery which contains Lithium and can cause severe burns within the oesophagus in only two hours after being swallowed. If it then causes a hole in the oesophagus called a perforation, death is almost certain to follow. Delays in reaching the appropriate centre coupled with the difficulty of establishing what was swallowed would ensure that a perforation occurs. With this, food and bacteria can escape into the chest with dire consequences. But then, so do swallowing of adult iron pills by children who mistake them for sweets. Within hours of taking an overdose, children can start vomitting blood or have bloody stools or both. Such a combination of events directly threatens the life of a child and only energetic treatment in the hospital can save them.

Equally dangerous is the availability of alcohol within the reach of children. As a component of many things present in the home, such as toothpaste, nail polish and their removers, it is easy to find its way into wrong hands. Alcohol swallowed by a child can rapidly cause convulsions, loss of consciousness and even death. The consumption of mushrooms, particularly the wild ones, is equally deadly and are equally prone to cause coma and death. Most of the species which grow in the wild are inherently dangerous unless the safe ones are positively identified by an expert on such things. However, it is not something that is deadly only to children.

Carbon monoxide is a colourless and odourless compound produced from internal combustion engines. In Nigeria, much of this compound is produced by generators which many of us know has killed many people over the last few years. Frequently, entire families are wiped out. In such occurrences more children than adults are tragically lost.

The last of these common poisons found in the home environment is the broad group of organo-phosphorous compounds which are commonly found in pesticides. Many different types are found in homes where they are in use to combat insects and rodents. These compounds are absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes. Many of the substances are poisonous to the nervous system and are liable to cause death by gradual paralysis. When the muscles responsible for breathing become involved, death comes slowly and in agonising fashion. In none of these situations is anyone encouraged to attempt home remedies other than trying to determine what the person involved might have swallowed. That information will be vital at the hospital. Such patients must be swiftly taken to the nearest hospital in the area where the decisions to be taken will include whether to treat or transfer to a larger hospital. Do not waste time in trying to decide that for yourself.

Ask the doctor

Dear doctor, recently, I was not able to sleep at night. I also noticed that I was not breathing fine the next morning. Please, what is the cause of this? 

It is difficult to give you meaningful help here because the information you have volunteered is so sparse. We do not know your age or sex or previous condition of overall health. However, we shall attempt some rationalisation. First, you could be an asthmatic who is experiencing an attack for the first time. Secondly, you may be in heart failure for various reasons, especially if you have had a poorly controlled high blood pressure for a period of time. Lastly, you could be suffering from a respiratory tract infection with the threat of a full blown pneumonia. Whatever the case may be you should be seeing a doctor with minimum delay so that the relevant examination can be conducted and treatment begun.

Dear doctor, I read your article in the newspaper. I am still single but my breast is naturally flat as if it has been sucked by a few babies but my fiancĂ© does not believe me. 

Not every woman is particularly well endowed in the manner that seems to appeal to the optics of the opposite sex. Various breast sizes are available in women, which is why there are various sizes of brassieres. As for flat breasts, that may happen if you have lost a considerable amount of weight over a short time or if you have breastfed children before. Since you say you haven't previously done so, perhaps your weight may have something to do with it.

Dear doctor, may God increase you more. Please, what are the differences between a central or specialist hospital and a teaching hospital. Is one more knowledgeable than the other, and which of the hospitals would you recommend?

Thank you very much. I appreciate that. A privately run specialist hospital is mostly one that is owned by a specialist who is an expert in one aspect of medicine. A public specialist hospital has many more departments manned by appropriate specialists who work mainly to render service to the public. The central hospital is not different from a specialist or general hospital. It is just the name only. The teaching hospital is usually much larger because it is structured to teach medical students and award degrees in addition to providing service. They are much better equipped than any of the other kinds of hospitals. The specialist or central hospitals cannot award degrees but you can be treated in any of them knowing, of course, that the teaching hospital is the hospital of last resort.

Dear doctor. I read your article in SUNDAY PUNCH and I would like to quickly use this medium to explain what I experienced recently. These are: weakness of the body - on one side, headache - also on one side of the head, and back pain. Can it be cured, and what is the best treatment? Thanks. God Bless you and your family.

I would start by thanking you for your prayers. The pain and the weakness you have can best be analysed by a physician following a diligent examination. After that, they will reach a diagnosis and then you can have the proper treatments applicable to your ailments.

Dear doctor, I am 13 but I have the stature of an 18-year-old girl and I have started my period. Now my boyfriend is asking me for sex. I am not a virgin. Should I give it to him? 

I try very much to not judge people on this page and so I will keep that aspect to myself. I am, however, astonished that at 13, you have lost your virginity. You are still a child physically and psychologically and I would dissuade you from "giving it to him." The reason is that if something unpleasant happens, you will find that you cannot cope with the emotions that will be unleashed simply because you are not ready. Do not fish in dangerous waters.

Dear doctor, I have had chronic insomnia now for several years for which I have used different drugs. I also discovered that I have breast cancer. What can I do?

The diagnosis of breast cancer involves so much in terms of treatment. You should not waste time in getting the treatment which will entail hospital admission and other short hospital stays. That affords you the opportunity to have your insomnia tackled as part of the psychotherapy you require to help you handle the illness. Besides, hospital admission helps your managing team to assess first-hand the scale of your sleep deprivation and deal with it.

Dear doctor, I have been suffering from headache for close to two years non-stop. I feel the pains in my eyes, on my forehead, at the back of my head, close to my neck, and inside my head. It feels like my head is 'breathing' when I lie down. I was asked to go for a brain test but I can't afford it. What do I do? I am 49 years old.

To endure a headache for two hours is a nightmare but to have it for two years is very unusual. I sympathise with you when you admit that you are not able to afford what I assume to be a brain CT. I believe you should let your doctors know this so that they can find a way around your financial handicap and help you by using other means to make a diagnosis.

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