Cyanide poisoning

Cyanide is a rare but a potentially lethal poison. It causes inability of the body to utilize oxygen. The cyanide compounds that are considered poisonous include hydrogen cyanide gas and the crystalline solids such as sodium cyanide and potassium cyanide.

The usual sources of cyanide poisoning generally include:

  • Inhalation of smoke from fires
  • Industries that utilize cyanide such as chemical research, photography, metal processing, synthetic plastics and electroplating
  • Certain plants such as apricot pits and cassava which is a type of potato
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Laetrile which is a form of cancer treatment

What are the indications of cyanide poisoning?

Determining if an individual is suffering from cyanide poisoning might be difficult. The effects that might arise if cyanide has been ingested strikingly resemble suffocation. The mechanism of toxicity occurs since cyanide prevents the cells of the body from utilizing oxygen which the cells require to survive.

Cyanide poisoning

An acute case of cyanide ingestion usually has a dramatic, rapid onset that immediately affects the heart and results to collapse.

The signs of cyanide poisoning are the same to those experienced while hiking or climbing at high altitudes such as:

  • Confusion
  • Generalized weakness
  • Erratic behavior
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Seizures
  • Coma

An acute case of cyanide ingestion usually has a dramatic, rapid onset that immediately affects the heart and results to collapse. It can also affect the brain and trigger a seizure or coma.

For chronic cases of cyanide poisoning after ingestion or environmental poisoning, it has a gradual onset and the symptoms that might arise include:

  • Changes in taste
  • Headache
  • Chest pain
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Anxiety

Take note that the skin of an individual suspected with cyanide poisoning might be unusually pinkish or cherry-red since the oxygen remains in the blood and unable to reach the cells. The individual also breathes rapidly and has either a rapid or slow heart rate.


It is important to note that cyanide poisoning could not be managed at home. Prompt medical care is required. Call for emergency assistance right away.

  • If there is a fire, ensure that the individual is not in danger from the fumes or smoke.
  • Check the area for fires, smoke and any spilled chemicals. The clothes and body of the individual might be sources if cyanide is still on him/her.
  • If CPR is needed, start an assessment but do not execute mouth-to-mouth resuscitation without barrier protection due to the risk for absorbing cyanide in this manner.
  • Check around for any chemical bottles, pill containers or open fires since these might be responsible for cyanide poisoning.

Quick Note / Disclaimer

The material posted on this page on cyanide poisoning is for learning and educational purposes only. To learn to recognize the indications of this form of poisoning, register for a first aid and CPR course with Vancouver First Aid.

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