To combat a splitting headache you take a bottle of pain relievers out of the medicine cabinet just as the doorbell rings. You set the bottle down on the counter and run to the door. By the time you’ve signed for the package and dashed back to the bathroom, your toddler has reached into the bottle and is getting ready to gulp down a whole handful of pills. Luckily, you’re in time to divert disaster.
It’s a mistake that can happen to even the most careful parents – in just a second, a minute of inattention. And, just like that, a child can be accidentally poisoned by medications you keep in your home.
According to a new study by the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center-Denver Health, parents’ prescription painkillers, in particular, are a major cause of poisoning in kids.
Looking at participating poison centres’ records over a span of 3½ years, researchers found that more than 9,000 kids ingested a prescription painkiller (mostly hydrocodone and oxycodone), and with horrible results: eight deaths (every one a child under the age of 3), 43 life-threatening or debilitating illnesses, and 214 moderate but not deadly effects. And those numbers may be only part of the story, since many poison centres weren’t accounted for.
The study also found that:
- The average age of the kids taking the meds meant for adults was 2 – often a "toddler discovering the medication during exploration of their environment."
- Nearly all of the medications were prescribed for an adult in the household.
- Most (92%) of the medications were ingested by children at home.
As the researchers point out, just one prescription painkiller can kill a young child.
The best defence against accidental medicine poisonings is storing all medications – prescription and non-prescription – in a locked cabinet, far from children’s reach. Even items that may seem harmless, like mouthwash, can be extremely dangerous if kids ingest them in large quantities.
And parents often have some common misconceptions about medications:
- Just because cabinets are up high doesn’t mean kids can’t get their hands on what’s in them. Children will use whatever they can – the toilet, countertops, stools, stacked books – to get to items in the medicine cabinet.
- Simply telling kids that something is dangerous won’t deter them. In fact, knowing it’s a no-no may tempt young kids to try the mysterious medicines even more. And older children and teens may even be looking for potential high-inducing meds.
- Child-resistant packaging does not mean "childproof". Even toddlers and small children can open child-resistant medicine bottles. Never rely on any kind of packaging to protect kids.
To help prevent kids of all ages from ingesting things they shouldn’t:
- Use safety latches for all cabinets containing hazardous substances such as:
- cleaning supplies
- automotive and gardening or lawn products
- mouthwash and food extracts (like vanilla and almond), which can contain substantial amounts of alcohol
- hair dye
- nail and shoe polish
- nail polish remover
- Never leave vitamin bottles, aspirin bottles, or other medications on kitchen tables, countertops, bedside tables, or dresser tops. Small children may decide to try to copy adults and help themselves.
- Never tell kids that medicine tastes like candy.
- Talk to relatives, childcare providers, babysitters, and family friends about their medications, too, especially if your children visit or stay there frequently. Explain the importance of keeping all medicines and hazardous substances out of kids’ reach and, ideally, locked away.
- Make sure purses and bags – yours and guests’ – that could contain poisonous items (like medications) are kept out of the reach of children at all times. Politely ask visitors if you can put their belongings in a designated place so the kids won’t get into them (say your children like to go through wallets or play with lipstick if you feel awkward about mentioning medications).
- Don’t keep medicines in your car, where kids may find them as they get in or ride along.
- Always store pills and liquids in their original containers.
- Try to keep a record of how many pills are left in a prescription container.
- Avoid stockpiling medicines and throw away what you’re no longer using.
Plus, parents can unintentionally poison their kids, too. Many perfectly well-meaning mums and dads accidentally can overdose their kids in the middle of the night or as they frantically try to make it all better.
That’s why it’s important to:
- Never prepare or give medication to a child in the dark – you may give the wrong dosage or even the wrong medication.
- Never give adult medications to children.
- Never give over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold remedies to kids under age 2 – they’re not safe and do not work for babies and toddlers. Talk to your doctor before giving them to any older child.
- Never give OTC cough and cold medications along with prescription or other OTC drugs without first talking to your doctor.
- Carefully read medicine labels.
- Use medications only as directed.
- Call the doctor if a dosage isn’t listed or you’re unsure about how much to give.
- Use only the measuring device (dropper, cup, or spoon) that comes with the medication or one that’s available at the pharmacy with the exact dosing measurements indicated on the medication’s label. Never give medicine in household spoons or other kitchen utensils.
Taking these simple precautions can help prevent a standard dose of medicine from turning into a terrifying trip to the ER.
(Source: Annals of Emergency Medicine: Nemours Foundation: September 2008)