Tennessee Poison Control Center offers holiday safety advice

Planning to decorate your house with the seasonal plant mistletoe? Looking to brighten your tree with your favorite bubbling lights and top off the branches with some artificial snow? Be cautious, according to staff at the Tennessee Poison Control Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who offer some holiday safety tips.

Potential poisons during the holidays include prescription medications, lamp oil, potpourri, tree ornaments that resemble candy or other food, bubbling tree lights, artificial snow, plants such as mistletoe and holly berry, along with those “perfect” gifts that include aftershave, perfume and cologne.

Michelle Grant, a poison specialist at the Tennessee Poison Control Center, said many poisonings occur when there is a distraction in the home, and there are plenty of those during the holidays, when decorating, cooking and giving gifts are abundant.

“This time of year, we receive several calls from parents whose child has just eaten a holiday decoration, artificial snow, poinsettia leaf or mistletoe,” she said.

Grant says to remember to “childproof” your home if you have visiting children over the holidays. She said the poison control center (PCC) receives many calls about children getting into medications that are within easy reach of little ones.

“We have a lot of calls about children getting into medicines that grandparents are not used to keeping out of the reach of little ones, either when the grandchildren are visiting them or they bring their medicines when they visit during the holiday,” Grant explained. “Remember to place anything that is harmful out of the reach of children.”

Some common topics the PCC receives calls about each year include:


Grant says poinsettias are non-toxic and present more of a choking hazard than as a poison. “Poinsettias are not toxic and do not pose a health threat,” she explained. “But like many houseplants, poinsettia leaves and stems can cause a minor upset stomach (nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea) if swallowed by young children or pets.”

Mistletoe and holly berries

Mistletoe can be extremely toxic to children and to pets. Mistletoe berries, and to a lesser extent the leaves and stems, contain poisonous substances that slow the heart. Other toxins in mistletoe induce nausea and vomiting. In fact, swallowing just a few mistletoe berries can cause serious problems for a toddler.

Holly berries can contain ilex acid, which irritates the stomach and causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. A child usually must swallow several holly berries before serious problems develop.

Jerusalem cherry plant

One of the more toxic plants sometimes displayed at Christmas is the Jerusalem cherry plant. Its bright yellow-to-red berries contain solanine. When ingested, solanine causes vomiting and diarrhea, slows the heart, lowers blood pressure, depresses breathing and induces coma.

Christmas lights

Keep "bubbling" lights away from children. These lights with their bright colors and bubbling movement can tempt curious children to break candle-shaped glass, which can cut, and attempt to drink the liquid, which contains a hazardous chemical.

Artificial snow

Children can choke if they try to eat the fake plastic snow that is often used in holiday decorations. Artificial snow sprays can irritate lungs if inhaled. To avoid injury, read container labels and follow directions carefully.

Glass ornaments

Be sure to place these ornaments out of reach of children, because the PCC often receives calls about children breaking them, and eating the pieces.

Winter hazards of carbon monoxide

This colorless, odorless gas is a silent killer. Get a carbon monoxide detector in your home, and never bring an outdoor product indoors to assist with heating. If you have a fireplace, make sure it’s been inspected by a professional.

If you have a question about a potential poison in your home, you may contact the Tennessee Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Your phone call will put you in touch with medical professionals who can help in a poison emergency, or answer any poison-related question. All calls to the poison hotline are free of charge. The center gives advice and makes medical referrals to people who may have come in contact with poison or other dangerous substances, or who have overdosed on drugs.