Accidental poisoning is caused by exposure to an amount of a substance that harms the body. It leads to thousands of hospitalisations and more than a thousand deaths in Australia each year, and mostly involves pharmaceutical drugs. In this report, the term ‘pharmaceutical drugs’ includes those prescribed by a health practitioner and those obtained by any other means.

In 2019–20, accidental poisoning resulted in:

10,800 hospitalisations

42 per 100,000 population

 1,500 deaths

6.0 per 100,000 population

This represents 2.1% of injury hospitalisations and 11% of injury deaths.

Intentional poisoning injuries are included under Self-harm and suicide and Assault and homicide. The adverse effects of correctly prescribed and consumed drugs are not included in this report.

Substances involved in accidental poisoning hospitalisations

In 2019–20:

  • harmful exposure to pharmaceutical drugs made up 83% of accidental poisoning hospitalisations (Table 1)
  • harmful exposure to other substances, including alcohol, organic solvents and gases, comprised the other 17% of accidental poisoning hospitalisations (Table 2). 
Table 1: Pharmaceuticals attributed to accidental poisoning hospitalisations, 2019–20

Type of pharmaceutical

Hospitalisations

%

Rate
(per 100,000)

Other and unspecified drugs, medicaments and biological substances (includes hormones and their synthetic substitutes and antagonists, not elsewhere classified, such as insulin) (X44)

2,963

33

11.6

Antiepileptic, sedative-hypnotic, antiparkinsonism and psychotropic drugs not elsewhere classified (includes benzodiazepines and psychostimulants with potential for use disorder, such as amphetamines) (X41)

2,787

31

10.9

Narcotics and psychodysleptics (hallucinogens), not elsewhere classified (includes opioids such as codeine, morphine and heroin) (X42)

1,832

20

7.2

Non-opioid analgesics, antipyretics and antirheumatic drugs (includes non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (X40)

983

11

3.9

Other drugs acting on the autonomic nervous system (X43)

398

4

1.6

Total

8,963

100

35

Notes

  1. Rates are crude per 100,000 population, calculated using estimated resident population as at 31 December of the relevant year.
  2. Percentages may not total 100 due to rounding.
  3. Codes in brackets refer to the ICD-10-AM (11th edition) external cause codes (ACCD 2019).

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database.

For more detail, see Data tables B7–8.

Table 2: Non-pharmaceutical substances attributed to accidental poisoning hospitalisations, 2019–20

Type of non-pharmaceutical substance

Hospitalisations

%

Rate
(per 100,000)

Other gases and vapours (not included in X46 below), such as exhaust fumes and carbon monoxide (X47)

298

16

1.2

Alcohol (X45)

221

12

0.9

Organic solvents and halogenated hydrocarbons and their vapours (X46)

125

7

0.5

Pesticides (X48)

88

5

0.3

Other and unspecified chemicals and noxious substances (X49)

1,124

61

4.4

Total

1,856

100

7.3

Notes

  1. Rates are crude per 100,000 population, calculated using estimated resident population as at 31 December of the relevant year.
  2. Percentages may not total 100 due to rounding.
  3. Organic solvents and halogenated hydrocarbons and their vapours include aerosol and solvent-based products such as, deodorant, hair care products, laughing gas (nitrous oxide), paint, paint thinner, glue, nail polish remover, cleaning spray, felt-tip markers, mineral turpentine, methylated spirits and petrol.
  4. Codes in brackets refer to the ICD-10-AM (11th edition) external cause codes (ACCD 2019).

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database.

For more detail, see Data tables B7–8.

Substances involved in accidental poisoning deaths

In 2019–20:

  • harmful exposure to pharmaceutical drugs made up 85% of accidental poisoning hospitalisations
  • alcohol was the most common non-pharmaceutical cause of accidental poisoning hospitalisations (Table 3). 
Table 3: Substances involved in accidental poisoning deaths, 2019–20

Type of substance

Deaths

%

Rate
(per 100,000)

Other specified and unspecified drugs, medicaments and biological substances (includes drugs acting on the autononomic nervous system, hormones and their synthetic substitutes and antagonists, not elsewhere classified, such as insulin) (X43–X44)

778

51

3.0

Narcotics and psychodysleptics (hallucinogens), not elsewhere classified (includes opioids such as codeine, morphine and heroin) (X42)

297

19

1.2

Antiepileptic, sedative-hypnotic, antiparkinsonism and psychotropic drugs not elsewhere classified (includes benzodiazepines and psychostimulants with potential for use disorder, such as amphetamines) (X41)

212

14

0.8

Alcohol (X45)

152

10

0.6

Non-opioid analgesics, antipyretics and antirheumatic drugs (includes non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (X40)

20

1

0.1

Other and unspecified gases, vapours, chemicals and noxious substances (X46–X49)

15

1

0.1

Other identified unspecified accidental poisoning

55

4

0.2

Total

1,529

100

6.0

Notes

  1. Rates are crude per 100,000 population, calculated using estimated resident population as at 31 December of the relevant year.
  2. Percentages may not total 100 due to rounding.
  3. Codes in brackets refer to the ICD-10 external cause codes (WHO 2011).

Source: AIHW National Mortality Database.

For more detail, see Data tables E10–11.

Seasonality and COVID-19

Hospital admissions due to accidental poisoning do not appear to exhibit a seasonal pattern, remaining relatively steady throughout the year.

In March 2020, the first lockdowns and social distancing measures associated with COVID-19 interrupted the usual activity of many Australians. The initial restrictions to movement and activity do not appear to have strongly impacted accidental poisoning injuries, with almost the same number of hospitalisations occurring in March to May (0.3% less) as in same period of the previous year (Figure 1). However, there appear to have been slightly less admissions in March 2020 and more in May 2020 than in the same months of the previous years.

See the interactive COVID-19 display for data and further discussion about the impact of COVID-19 on hospital admissions.

Figure 1: Accidental poisoning hospitalisations by month, 2017–18 to 2019–20

Notes
1. Months have been standardised to 31 days.
2. A scale up factor has been applied to June admissions to account for cases not yet separated.

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database.

Trends over time

The age-standardised rate of hospitalisations due to poisoning in 2019–20 was 1.6% higher than a year earlier. It is difficult to determine whether this increase was impacted by the effects of COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing.

Over the period from 2009–10 to 2016–17, there was an average annual increase of 1.6% for the age-standardised rate of accidental poisoning hospitalisations. There is a break in the time series for hospitalisations between 2016–17 and 2017–18 due to a change in data collection methods (see the Technical notes for details).

For deaths due to poisoning, the age-standardised rate for 2019–20 was 1.5% lower than a year earlier. The average annual increase in rate between 2010–11 and 2019–20 was 1.1% (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Accidental poisoning hospitalisations and deaths, by sex, 2010–11 to 2019–20

The visualisation features 2 matching line graphs on separate tabs, 1 for hospitalisations and 1 for deaths. The 3 lines represent the trend for males, females and persons from 2010–11 to 2019–20. The reader can select to display rate per 100,000 population or number.

For more detail, see Data tables C1–7 and F1–4.

Variation by age and sex

Accidental poisoning hospitalisation rates were similar for males and females, but the male rate of death was more than twice the rate of females. Age patterns were also markedly different between hospitalisations and deaths (Figure 3).

For accidental poisonings in 2019–20:

  • males made up a greater proportion of both the hospitalisations (55%) and the deaths (70%) than females
  • people aged 25–44 and 45–64 had much higher rates of accidental poisoning deaths than other age groups (9.3 and 10.1 per 100,000 population, respectively)
  • young children aged 0–4 had the highest rate of accidental poisoning hospitalisation (95 per 100,000 population).

Figure 3: Accidental poisoning hospitalisations and deaths, by age group and sex, 2019–20

The visualisation features 2 matching column graphs on separate tabs, 1 for hospitalisations and 1 for deaths. The columns represent sex within 6 life-stage age groups. The reader can select to display either age-specific rate per 100,000 population or number. The default displays male and female and the reader can also select to display persons.

For more detail, see Data tables A1–3 and D1–3.

Severity

There are many ways that the severity, or seriousness, of an injury can be measured. Using available data, three measures of the severity of hospitalised injuries are:

  • number of days in hospital
  • time in an intensive care unit (ICU)
  • time on a ventilator.

The average number of days in hospital for accidental poisoning was less than the average for all injury hospitalisations, but the percentage of cases that included either time in an ICU or on continuous ventilatory support were higher than for all (Table 4).

Table 4: Severity of accidental poisoning hospitalisation cases, 2019–20

 

Accidental poisoning

All injuries

Average number of days in hospital

2.3

4.5

% of cases with time in an ICU

10.6

2.4

% of cases involving continuous ventilatory support

8.0

1.4

Note: Average number of days in hospital (length of stay) includes admissions that are transfers from 1 hospital to another or transfers from 1 admitted care type to another within the same hospital, except where care involves rehabilitation procedures.

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database.

For more detail, see Data tables A12–13.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

In 2019–20, among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people:

  • there were 881 hospitalisations and 93 deaths due to accidental poisoning (Tables 5 and 6)
  • males were 1.1 times as likely as females to be hospitalised and 1.4 times as likely to die due to accidental poisoning
  • hospitalisation rates were highest for children aged 0–4.
Table 5: Numbers and rates of accidental poisoning hospitalisation by sex, Indigenous Australians, 2019–20

 

Males

Females

Persons

Number

454

427

881

Rate (per 100,000)

106

100

103

Note: Persons includes cases where sex is intersex, indeterminate or missing.

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database.

Table 6: Numbers and rates of accidental poisoning death by sex, Indigenous Australians, 2019–20

 

Males

Females

Persons

Number

55

38

93

Rate (per 100,000)

14.6

10.1

12.4

Notes

  1. Rates are crude per 100,000 population.
  2. Deaths data only includes data for New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, and the Northern Territory.

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database.

For more detail, see Data tables A4–5 and D4-5.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians

In 2019–20, Indigenous Australians, compared with non-Indigenous Australians, after adjusting for differences in population age structure, were:

  • 2.9 times as likely to be hospitalised due to accidental poisoning (Table 7)
  • 2.9 times as likely to die because of accidental poisoning (Table 8).
Table 7: Age-standardised rates (per 100,000) of accidental poisoning hospitalisation by Indigenous status and sex, 2019–20

 

Males

Females

Persons

Indigenous Australians

115

108

112

Non-Indigenous Australians

44

34

39

Notes

  1. Rates are age-standardised to the 2001 Australian population (per 100,000).
  2. ‘Other Australians’ includes cases where Indigenous status is missing or not stated.

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database.

Table 8: Age-standardised rates (per 100,000) of accidental poisoning death by Indigenous status and sex, 2019–20

 

Males

Females

Persons

Indigenous Australians

18.2

13.4

15.8

Non-Indigenous Australians

7.8

2.9

5.4

Notes

  1. Rates are age-standardised to the 2001 Australian population (per 100,000).
  2. ‘Non-Indigenous Australians’ excludes cases where Indigenous status is missing or not stated.
  3. Deaths data only includes data for New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, and the Northern Territory.

Source: AIHW National Mortality Database.

For more detail, see Data tables A6 and D8.

The age-specific rate of accidental poisoning injury hospitalisation cases was highest among the 0–4 life-stage age group for both Indigenous and other Australians (Figure 4). Deaths data are not presented because of small numbers.

Figure 4: Accidental poisoning hospitalisations by Indigenous status, by age group and sex, 2019–20

Column graph representing hospitalisation data for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by 6 life-stage age groups. The reader can select to display age-specific rate per 100,000 population or number. The reader can also select to display data for persons, males or females.

For more detail, see Data tables A4–A6 and D4–D8.

Remoteness

In 2019–20, people living in Very remote areas had the highest rate of hospitalisation by accidental poisoning and people living in Major cities areas had the lowest rate. People living in Very remote areas, using age-standardised rates, were 1.6 times as likely to be hospitalised due to poisoning as those living in Major cities (Table 9).

People living in Inner regional areas had higher rates of death by accidental poisoning than those in Major cities or Outer regional areas (Table 10).

Table 9: Age-standardised rates (per 100,000) of accidental poisoning hospitalisations by remoteness and sex, 2019–20

 

Males

Females

Persons

Major cities

44

35

39

Inner regional

45

35

40

Outer regional

55

44

50

Remote

64

59

61

Very remote

53

77

64

Note: Rates are age-standardised per 100,000 population.

Source: AIHW National Hospital Morbidity Database.

Table 10: Age-standardised rates (per 100,000) of accidental poisoning deaths by remoteness and sex, 2019–20

 

Males

Females

Persons

Major cities

8.7

3.4

6.0

Inner regional

8.7

3.6

6.1

Outer regional

8.2

3.4

5.8

Remote

n.p.

n.p.

n.p.

Very remote

n.p.

n.p.

n.p.

n.p. not publishable because of small numbers, confidentiality or other concerns about the quality of the data.

Note: Rates are age-standardised per 100,000 population.

Source: AIHW National Mortality Database.

For more detail, see Data tables A9 and D9.

The highest age-specific rate of accidental poisoning hospitalisations was among the 0–4 life-stage age group living in Very remote areas of Australia. (Figure 5).

Deaths data are not presented because of small numbers.

Figure 5: Accidental poisoning hospitalisations by remoteness, by age group and sex, 2019–20

Column graph representing hospitalisation data for each of the 5 remoteness categories by 6 life-stage age groups. The reader can select to display age-specific rate per 100,000 population or number. The reader can also select to display data for persons, males or females.

For more detail, see Data tables A7–A9 and D9–10.

For information on how statistics by remoteness are calculated, see Technical notes.

More information

Defining injury hospitalisations and deaths: how injuries were counted

Technical notes: how the data were calculated

Data tables: download the full tables

Glossary