Hesperian Health Guides

Treatment for Pesticide Poisoning

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 14: Pesticides Are Poison > Treatment for Pesticide Poisoning

Like other toxic chemicals, pesticides can poison people in different ways: through the skin and eyes, through the mouth (by swallowing), or through the air (by breathing). Each kind of poisoning needs a different kind of treatment.

When pesticides get on the skin

A boy pours pesticide into a bucket. Most pesticide poisonings are from pesticides being absorbed through the skin. This can happen when they spill while being moved, when they splash during mixing, during spraying, or when you touch crops that have just been sprayed. Pesticides can also get on your skin through your clothes, or when you wash clothes with pesticides on them.

Rashes and irritation are the first signs of poisoning through the skin. Because skin problems may be caused by other things, such as a reaction to plants, insect bites, infections, or allergies, it can be hard to know if the problem is caused by pesticides. Talk to other workers to find out if the crop you are working with causes this kind of reaction. If you work with pesticides and get any unexpected skin rashes, it is safest to treat them as if they are caused by pesticides.

As a woman lies on her back, another woman pours water over her eyes to rinse them out.

If you or someone else gets pesticides on the body:

  • Quickly remove any clothing the pesticides spilled onto.
  • Wash the pesticides off the skin as soon as possible with soap and cool water.
  • If it got into the eye, rinse the eye with clean water for 15 minutes.

If the skin is burned from pesticides:

Hands under a running tap.

  • Rinse well with cool water.
  • Do not remove anything stuck to the burn.
  • Do not apply lotions, fats, or butter.
  • Do not break blisters.
  • Do not remove loose skin.
  • Cover the area with a sterile dressing, if available.
  • If pain lasts, get medical help! Bring the label from the pesticide containers or the names of the pesticides with you.

Pesticides can stick to your skin, hair, and clothes, even if you cannot see or smell them. Always wash with soap after using pesticides.

When pesticides are swallowed

A farm worker holds his belly.
Eating foods sprayed with pesticides might make you sick later.

People can swallow pesticides by eating, drinking, or smoking cigarettes in the fields while working with pesticides, or by drinking water polluted with pesticides. Children can drink or eat pesticides, especially if pesticides are stored in containers also used to hold food, or left in the open or low to the ground.


When someone swallows pesticides:

  • If the person is unconscious, lay her on her side and make sure she is breathing.
  • If the person is not breathing, quickly do mouth-to-mouth breathing. Mouth-to-mouth breathing can also expose you to the pesticide, so cover your mouth with a pocket mask, a piece of cloth, or thick plastic wrap with a hole cut in the middle, before you start mouth-to-mouth breathing.
  • Find the pesticide package and read the label right away. The label will tell you if you should make the person vomit up the poison or not.
  • If the person can drink, give her lots of clean water.
  • Seek medical help. If it is available, always take the pesticide label or name with you.
a woman offers liquid to another woman who is bending over and trying to vomit.

Do not vomit if the label says not to. Never vomit after swallowing a pesticide that contains gasoline, kerosene, xylene, or other petroleum-based liquids. This will make the problem worse. Never make the person vomit or drink if she is unconscious, confused, or shaking badly.

If you are sure vomiting is OK, give the person:

  • a glass of very salty water or
  • 2 tablespoons of pounded strong-tasting edible plant (such as celery, basil, or another local herb) followed by 1 or 2 glasses of warm water

Keep the person moving around. This can help her vomit sooner.

After vomiting, activated or powdered charcoal can help absorb any poison still in the stomach.

EHB Ch14 Page 258-1.png
activated charcoal
powdered charcoal
water or fruit juice
water or fruit juice

Mix ½ cup of activated charcoal or 1 tablespoon of finely powdered charcoal with warm water in a large glass or jar.

Make powdered charcoal from burnt wood, or even burnt bread or tortilla. This is not as good as activated charcoal, but it still works. NEVER use charcoal briquettes. They are poison!

After the person vomits, or even if she does not, you can slow the spread of the poison while getting to a doctor by giving her a drink of:

  • 1 raw egg white
  • a glass of cow’s milk

Drinking milk does NOT prevent pesticide poisoning. It just slows the spread of the poison.

If someone swallowed pesticides and does not have sharp stomach pain, they can take sorbitol or magnesium hydroxide (Milk of Magnesia). These medicines cause diarrhea, which can help to get poisons out of the body.

When to use atropine

A hand holding a syringe.

Atropine is a medicine for treating poisoning from certain pesticides called organophosphates and carbamates. If the label on the pesticide container says to use atropine, or if it says the pesticide is a “cholinesterase inhibitor,” use atropine as directed. If the label does not say to use atropine, do not use it.

Atropine is used only for organophosphate or carbamate poisoning.

4 men use a cloth gurney to move a poisoned man to an ambulance.

Atropine does NOT prevent pesticide poisoning. It only delays the effects of poisoning. Atropine should never be taken before spraying.

IMPORTANT! Do NOT give these drugs for pesticide poisoning: Sleeping pills (sedatives), morphine, barbiturates, phenothiazines, aminophylline, or any drugs that slow or lessen breathing. They can make the person stop breathing completely.

Every farm that uses pesticides should have an emergency kit with medicines and supplies to use in case of poisoning. See “What to put in a first aid kit.”

When pesticides are breathed in

2 men use with an ox cart to spray a field.

When pesticides are released into the air, we breathe them in through our nose and mouth. Once in the lungs, the pesticides quickly enter the blood and spread poison through the whole body.

Because some pesticides have no smell, it is often hard to know if they are in the air. The most common forms of air-borne pesticides are fumigants, aerosols, foggers, smoke bombs, pest strips, sprays, and residues from spraying. You can also inhale pesticide dust in a storage area, when it is being used in an enclosed area, such as a greenhouse, or when it is being transported to the fields.

A man holding his hand over his face is helped by another to walk away from pesticide containers.
If you have doubt, get out!

Pesticide dust in the air can travel miles to pollute an area far from where it was used. It is easy for pesticide dust to get into houses.

If you think you have breathed in pesticides, get away from the pesticides right away! Do not wait until you feel worse.


If you or someone else breathes in pesticides:

  • Get the person away from the area where she breathed in the poison, especially if it is an enclosed area.
  • Get fresh air.
  • Loosen clothing to make breathing easier.
  • Sit with head and shoulders raised.
  • If the person is unconscious, lay her on her side and watch her to make sure there is nothing blocking her breathing.
  • If the person is not breathing, quickly do mouth-to-mouth breathing.

Seek medical help. Take the pesticide label or name of the pesticide with you.

A small airplane sprays a village with pesticide.
Drawing for discussion: How do pesticides enter the body?

Using a pesticide container on his back, a man sprays crops.

A woman asks questions.

Questions for discussion:

  • In what ways could this man be harmed by what he is doing?
  • What can he do to protect himself?
  • Who else may be affected by his actions?
  • What are some reasons why he is not doing everything he can to protect himself?