Iron Overdose Symptoms: Accidental Poisoning

iron pills

When you leave your babysitter with a list of emergency numbers, you most likely barely remember the poison control hotline that’s scrawled at the bottom. After all, you might expect her to call you, distressed, when your little angel is refusing to lay down; you certainly don’t anticipate a call that there’s been an overdose.

While the word overdose may conjure pictures of twenty-something in clubs, high school drop-outs, or rock-and-roll superstars, it isn’t something that discriminates. Overdoses aren’t always on purpose, and can happen to anyone, even your child.

Iron poisoning tops the charts on poisoning deaths among young children, with over 110,000 cases involving children under the age of six reported to poison control centers. Iron supplement tablets appeal to children because they can look like candy; although available in different forms, supplements are often small, red, round pills that mimic Skittles or M&Ms. Iron supplements do not require a prescription and are available in bottles that may or may not be child-resistant.

When to Worry

Iron supplements are available as tablets, drops, syrups, and capsules. Iron is also common in children’s vitamins, as well as pre-natal supplements. Because of the variety of forms it comes in, it can be difficult to recognize the potential danger and store iron out of reach of children.

The severity of the poisoning depends on the amount of iron taken, as well as the size of your child. It’s unlikely that your child will be able (whether out of refusal or otherwise) to tell you the amount of pills swallowed, so it’s important to know the content of the iron supplements. Symptoms typically appear at doses exceeding 10mg per kilogram (per child’s weight).

What it Looks Like

Symptoms of poisoning usually become evident within six hours of the child taking the iron. While iron supplements are used to treat anemia and other minor illnesses, too much iron can corrode the lining of the intestines and irritate the stomach. Signs of poisoning may include severe vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, dehydration and lethargy. Stool may turn black if it contains blood from the intestinal tract; likewise, vomit may be bloody if poisoning has occurred.

These symptoms may fluctuate or disappear entirely, even without treatment. If left untreated, iron poisoning can result in shock from a severe blood chemistry imbalance. This can lead to seizures or even coma, as well as damage to the liver, kidneys, stomach, and brain. Fatality is closely linked to the onset of coma or shock, so it’s crucial to seek medical attention if you even suspect there may have been poisoning.

A good safeguard against your child’s inability or refusal to admit taking iron supplements is to see if the bottle is opened or only loosely secured. By counting the pills or liquid remaining, you can help the physician determine how much iron was consumed.


Prevention is the first and most crucial step to ensuring you don’t have to suffer this nightmare. Childproof caps on bottles are not enough deterrent for determined children:  keep all medicines in a locked cabinet or safely out of the child’s reach as extra protection. Keeping the medicine in its original container not only helps to determine how much was taken, but also discourages children from consuming the contents. Discuss with your child the difference between candy and medicine, and why medicine should only be used when it’s needed. This step is important, especially if your child uses chewable vitamins.

Encourage your children to ask questions if they have trouble understanding the importance of this life lesson. It doesn’t have to be scary: use an array of candies that look similar to iron (M&Ms, Skittles, RedHots, etc) to demonstrate how similar the two can appear and discourage the child from eating anything that doesn’t have an identifiable source.

Hopefully, your babysitter will never need to use the emergency number list, especially not the number for the poison control center. Prevention is the easiest, safest, and most important step to treating illnesses, accidental or otherwise. Educate your family on what to look for, and have a relaxing night out knowing the biggest of your worries is whether or not your little angel will still be awake when you get home!