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Starch poisoning

Starch is a substance used for cooking. Another form is used to add firmness and shape to clothing. Starch poisoning occurs when someone accidentally or intentionally swallows starch.

This is for information only and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

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

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

Cooking starch and laundry starch are different substances. There are many brand names for both. This list may not include all uses of starch.

Symptoms

For cooking starch:

Gastrointestinal:

For laundry starch (with very long-term use):

Bladder and kidneys:

Eyes, ears, nose, and throat:

  • Jaundice (eyes become yellow)

Gastrointestinal:

  • 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 immediate medical help. Do NOT make a person throw up unless told to do so by poison control or a health care professional.

If the chemical was swallowed, immediately give the person water or milk, unless instructed otherwise by a health care provider. Do NOT give water or milk if the patient is having symptoms (such as vomiting, convulsions, or a decreased level of alertness) that make it hard to swallow.

If the chemical is on the skin or in the eyes, flush with lots of water for at least 15 minutes.

Before Calling Emergency

Determine the following:

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

Poison Control

The National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national 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.

See: Poison control center - emergency number

What to Expect at the Emergency Room

For cooking starch:

You probably will not need to go to the emergency room, unless you are unable to drink fluids or are in severe pain.

For laundry starch:

The health care provider will measure and monitor your vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Symptoms will be treated as appropriate. You may receive:

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

Outlook (Prognosis)

How well you do depends on the amount of poison swallowed and how quickly treatment is received. The faster you get medical help, the better the chance for recovery.

Cooking starch is generally not harmful and recovery is likely. Poisonings from laundry starch are 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: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 99.

Updated: 1/22/2014

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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