The National Poisons Centre (NPC) is New Zealand’s only poison and hazardous chemicals information centre. It is located in the Dunedin School of Medicine at the University of Otago and is funded by the Ministry of Health and the Accident Compensation Commission. The NPC answers around 30,000 telephone enquires each year on its 24-hour 7-day toll-free emergency telephone service.

The role of the National Poisons Centre

The main role of the NPC is to provide advice to members of the public and healthcare professionals about acute poisoning situations. These poisonings can involve medicines, chemicals, poisonous creatures (such as spiders and jellyfish), plants and fungi.

The NPC gives advice on what to do in situations of poisoning or where poisoning might occur, for example:

  • if someone has swallowed, inhaled or injected a substance
  • if someone has got a substance in their eye(s) or on their skin
  • if someone has been bitten or stung by a poisonous creature
  • advice on preventing poisonings in the home
  • general first aid advice for poisonings.

The NPC also:

  • maintains an internet database on chemicals, medicines, plants and animals
  • provides prevention information packs for parents, schools and other organisations
  • monitors poisoning statistics to identify targeted prevention strategies.

Hints and tips for calling the NPC

First of all, remain calm! Not all medicines and household chemicals are considered poisonous or cause symptoms. If the person is unconscious or has difficulty breathing, ring 111 and request an ambulance. In all other poisoning situations, call the NPC on 0800 POISON. Remember to bring the product container to the phone so you can provide information about the substance when asked.

A Poison Information Officer will answer your call. These officers are specialists who have a variety of health-related degrees in pharmacology, toxicology, neuroscience, nursing or pharmacy. They have also undertaken intensive training in the specific management of poisoning. Poison Information Officers are supported by medical toxicologists who provide 24-hour consultation in complex poisoning cases.

The Poison Information Officer will ask you some questions before they give you advice. These questions might include:

  • whether there has been an exposure to poison, and if so, whether the poison was swallowed or splashed in the eye or on the skin
  • when the exposure happened
  • the name and concentration of the substance involved, if known (from the container label)
  • the amount of substance involved (for example, a mouthful, the number of tablets swallowed or even the approximate amount left in the bottle)
  • the age and weight of the patient
  • any signs or symptoms that the patient shows
  • how the patient feels
  • any first aid that has already been carried out.

Don’t be afraid to mention anything you think may be important, such as existing health conditions or problems or any other relevant factors, such as if you live in a remote location not close to medical care.

Once they have this information, the Poisons Information Officer will give you advice as to what kind of first aid is needed and whether or not the patient needs to see a doctor. The Poison Information Officer will also ask for your name, address and phone number in case they need to contact you with any further information.

Useful links

Find out more about the National Poisons Centre.

    Published 4 September 2012