Kids and nicotine poisoning

Most of us know about the dangers of tobacco products and secondhand smoke, but did you know that nicotine, the addictive ingredient in tobacco, can be poisonous in any form? Each year the Kentucky Regional Poison Control Center of Norton Children’s Hospital receives hundreds of calls about children who have nicotine poisoning due to eating, swallowing or touching tobacco or nicotine products.

“Symptoms of mild nicotine poisoning include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea,” said Ashley N. Webb, Pharm.D., director of the poison control center. “More severe cases can include dizziness, sweating, headache, hyperactivity or restlessness. Changes in blood pressure and heart rate can develop and can be followed by difficulty breathing. And in rare cases it can result in seizures, coma and even death.”

Children can be exposed to nicotine in a number of ways:

Young children are curious and explore their environment through touch and taste. They can eat whole cigarettes and cigarette butts, chew up and swallow smokeless tobacco products and take drinks from “spit cups.” A relatively new danger is electronic cigarettes. Reported cases include children licking the nicotine cartridges and playing with e-cigarettes that leak, exposing them to nicotine. Smoking cessation products such as nicotine gums and mints also are tempting to children, and nicotine patches can be chewed or swallowed.

When tobacco and nicotine products touch skin, the nicotine is absorbed into the bloodstream, causing the same symptoms as eating or drinking it. While children have been known to rub tobacco from cigarettes or cigars onto their skin, most skin exposure happens with liquid nicotine from e-cigarettes or nicotine patches.

While exposure to tobacco smoke cannot cause nicotine poisoning, it is important to remember that frequent exposure to secondhand smoke is dangerous. It contributes to serious health issues in children and adults, including asthma, nasal polyps, lung cancer and heart disease. Secondhand smoke also increases the risk of sudden unexpected infant death.

Keeping kids safe
The best way to prevent nicotine poisoning is to always make sure tobacco and nicotine products are stored out of reach of children. This includes ashtrays and spit cups. Store all parts of e-cigarettes in a secure place, especially the liquid nicotine or nicotine cartridges.

Avoid using tobacco products in front of children. Children learn by imitating adults, and they will be more likely to try to touch or taste products they see an adult use. Be especially careful if your child is visiting the home of someone who uses these products. Ask them to follow the same precautions.

–Maria Chapman

If your child is exposed to nicotine, call the Kentucky Regional Poison Control Center immediately at (800) 222-1222 . Most mild cases of nicotine poisoning can be treated at home, but the center’s specialists will help you determine the best course of action.

The poison control center is staffed by physicians, nurses and pharmacists specially trained in clinical toxicology. It is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Calls are free and confidential. For more poison safety information, including a home safety checklist, visit

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