What is Clinical Toxicology?

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  • Written By: Dulce Corazon
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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Toxicology is the science of poison and its effects in living organisms. There are several divisions of toxicology, one of which is clinical toxicology. Clinical toxicology is the study of the toxic or adverse effects of agents, such as drugs and chemicals, in the body. Most of these agents are usually given to individuals in order to give relief for symptoms or to treat and prevent diseases.

Clinical toxicology is focused on the diseases associated with short-term and long-term exposure to various toxic chemicals. It typically coincides with other sciences such as biochemistry, pharmacology, and pathology. Biochemistry is the study of the chemical processes going on in the body. Pharmacology deals with the study of the actions of drugs in the body, and pathology is the study of disease and its diagnosis through the examination of tissues and bodily fluids.

Individuals who specialize in clinical toxicology are referred to as clinical toxicologists. Their work focuses around the identification, diagnosis, and treatment of conditions resulting from exposure to harmful agents. They usually study the toxic effects of various drugs in the body, and are also concerned with the treatment and prevention of drug toxicity in the population.


Several factors can influence the toxic effect of a certain substance. One is the amount or dose of drug administered. Most chemicals, including water and oxygen, are often harmful to the body when taken in large doses. Another factor is the route by which a person was exposed. A person can be exposed to various substances through ingestion, inhalation, and skin penetration. The duration of exposure is also a vital factor in the effect of toxic substances in the body.

There are approximately 100,000 hospital admissions per year related to poisoning. The most common drugs that resulted in poisoning are paracetamol, salicylate, tricyclic antidepressant, and phenothiazine. A paracetamol is an over-the-counter drug frequently used to relieve fever and pain. Salicylate is another medication for fever, body pains, and inflammations. Tricyclic antidepressant is for the treatment of depression, and phenothiazine is also used to treat emotional and mental problems.

Included in the scope of clinical toxicology is the determination of factors that usually lead to drug overdoses and poisoning. These factors include a patient's incorrectly using prescribed drugs, overprescribing of drugs, and inattention to drug warnings. Drugs may also interact with other drugs the patient is also taking. Allergic reactions can also happen in predisposed individuals.

Drug-related emergencies often require laboratory work to identify the drug that caused the poisoning. Blood is usually extracted from the patient to test for the measurements of arterial blood gases, urea, electrolytes, and glucose, among many others. A urine test is also frequently performed.


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Post 3

Do clinical toxicologists study the toxicology of herbs and plants at all. There are so many herbal supplements on the market and I know that these can be very toxic if used inappropriately as well. I know the FDA doesn't regulate these products but I'm wondering if clinical toxicologists work with these manufacturers to test their products.

Post 2

@candyquilt-- I disagree with you on one point. Although it's true that people have different tolerance levels to medications, toxicologists study something called the therapeutic index of medication. So they know at what dose intervals the medication is therapeutic and at what doses it becomes toxic or poisonous. The doses prescribed by doctors to patients are always in the therapeutic dose range. Doctors never prescribe a dose that will be toxic. Moreover, doctors prefer the lowest effective dose for their patients always to avoid side effects as much as possible. So a patient cannot experience poisoning if he or she follows the dose prescribed by the doctor. Poisoning will occur if the patient takes far above the recommended dose.

For some medications, poisoning to the extent of causing death is very rare. Doses are adjusted to avoid death by manufacturers. But this doesn't mean that poisoning won't lead to serious and sometimes permanent organ damage. Some pain relievers can cause liver and kidney failure in large doses. Sometime people try to use these drugs to commit suicide but they don't realize that they will most certainly survive but may suffer for the rest of their lives and even require an organ transplant.

Post 1

I think that one cause of drug poisoning is that doctors and pharmacists don't always consider the tolerance and weight of the patient. I know for antidepressants for example, almost everyone regardless of gender, age, weight and tolerance are prescribed the same doses and only adjusted latter if those doses don't work. But people who weigh less will experience the effects of the drug more. Plus, everyone has different tolerance levels to drugs. Some people are sensitive or their body absorbs more of the drug. This can lead to unintended drug overdose.

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