Physical Assessment and Differential Diagnosis of the Poisoned Patient

Kent R. Olson, Paul R Pentel, Michael T. Kelley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


The rapid diagnosis and immediate intervention required in patients with serious drug overdose or poisoning makes toxicological screening of limited value to the emergency department physician. Instead, a careful clinical evaluation using the history, physical examination, and the more readily available laboratory tests may allow a tentative diagnosis and the initiation of life-saving treatment. Laboratory tests should include serum osmolality, electrolytes, glucose, BUN and an estimation of the anion and osmolar gaps. The ECG can also provide useful information. Clinical findings of important include altered blood pressure, pulse, respiration and body temperature, the presence of coma, agitation, delirium or psychosis, and muscular weakness. An ophthalmological examination is also of importance in the acutely poisoned patient. Oral burns or dysphagia may occur following ingestion of any strongly reactive substance, but the absence of oral burns does not preclude the possibility of oesophageal or stomach injury. Odours and skin colour may also contribute to the diagnosis. Comprehensive toxicology screening may not be immediately available, or may be inaccurate, thus adding little to the information obtained during the initial evaluation of the poisoned patient.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)52-81
Number of pages30
JournalMedical Toxicology and Adverse Drug Experience
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1987


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