Starch poisoning

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Definition

Starch is a substance used for cooking. Another kind of starch is used to add firmness and shape to clothing. Starch poisoning occurs when someone swallows starch. This can be by accident or on purpose.

This article is for information only. DO NOT use it to treat or manage an actual poison exposure. If you or someone you are with has an exposure, call your local emergency number (such as 911), or your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States.

Alternative Names

Cooking starch poisoning; Laundry starch poisoning

Poisonous Ingredient

Cooking and laundry starch are both made from vegetable products, most commonly:

  • Corn
  • Potatoes
  • Rice
  • Wheat

Both are usually considered nonpoisonous (nontoxic), but some older laundry starches may contain:

  • Borax
  • Magnesium salts
  • Polishing agents

Where Found

Starch is found in:

  • Cooking starch
  • Cosmetic products
  • Laundry products (laundry starch)

Cooking starch and laundry starch are different substances. There are many brand names for both. Other products may also contain starch.

Symptoms

Swallowing cooking starch can cause a blockage in the intestines and stomach pain.

Swallowing laundry starch over a very long period of time can cause the symptoms below in different parts of the body:

BLADDER AND KIDNEYS

EYES, EARS, NOSE, AND THROAT

  • Eyes become yellow (jaundice)

STOMACH AND INTESTINES

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

HEART AND BLOOD

SKIN

NERVOUS SYSTEM

If the starch is inhaled, it may cause wheezing, rapid breathing, shallow breathing, and chest pain.

If the starch contacts the eyes, it may cause redness, tearing, and burning.

Home Care

Seek medical help right away. DO NOT make the person throw up unless poison control or a health care provider tells you to.

If the person swallowed the starch, give them water or milk right away, unless a provider tells you not to. DO NOT give anything to drink if the person has symptoms that make it hard to swallow. These include vomiting, convulsions, or a decreased level of alertness. If the starch is on the skin or in the eyes, flush with lots of water for at least 15 minutes.

Before Calling Emergency

Have this information ready:

  • Person's age, weight, and condition
  • Name of the product (ingredients, if known)
  • Time it was swallowed
  • Amount swallowed

Poison Control

Your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States. This hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.

This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

What to Expect at the Emergency Room

Bring the starch with you to the hospital, if possible.

For cooking starch:

The person will probably not need to go to the emergency room, unless they cannot drink fluids or are in severe pain.

For laundry starch:

The provider will measure and monitor the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Symptoms will be treated.

The person may receive:

  • Activated charcoal
  • Blood and urine tests
  • Breathing support, including a tube through the mouth into the lungs and a breathing machine (ventilator)
  • Chest x-ray
  • EKG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
  • Fluids through a vein (by IV)
  • Laxatives
  • Medicine to treat symptoms
  • Tube from the mouth into the stomach to empty the stomach (gastric lavage)

Outlook (Prognosis)

How well someone does depends on how much starch they swallowed and how quickly they receive treatment. The faster medical help is given, the better the chance for recovery. Cooking starch is generally not harmful, and recovery is likely. Poisoning from laundry starch is more serious.

References

Sue YJ, Pinkert H. Baby powder, borates, and camphor. In: Shannon MW, Borron SW, Burns MJ, eds. Haddad and Winchester's Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2007:chap 99.

Zosel AE. General approach to the poisoned patient. In: Adams JG, ed. Emergency Medicine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:chap 143.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 10/19/2015
  • Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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