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Kids Poisoned by Adult Prescriptions

Thousands of Accidental Poisonings Occur When Young Children Stumble Onto Prescriptions at Home
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 2, 2008 -- Most prescriptions carry the warning: "Keep away from children." But did you know that a child could die from swallowing just one dose of a popular painkiller?

In recent years, thousands of very young children have swallowed prescription opioid painkillers meant for someone else in their household, resulting in permanent damage, and in some cases, death.

Researchers studied participating RADARS System poison center records and found that 9,179 children under age 6 were exposed to a prescription opioid; nearly all of them from ingestion. Most of the poisonings involved hydrocodone or oxycodone. Drugs containing either hydrocodone or oxycodone include Lortab, Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin, among others.

The poisonings resulted in eight deaths, all in children under age 3. The exposures also led to 43 life-threatening or disabling events and 214 prolonged but not life-threatening effects. Slightly more than half of the poisonings occurred in boys.

Study authors say the number of accidental poisonings is probably much higher because only a portion of U.S. poison control centers participated in the study.

The results, published online today in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, highlight the dangers of leaving medications within reach of children. Researchers say most accidental poisonings occur when curious children find a lost or discarded pill, or when an adults leaves medicine out in the open.

"The effectiveness of child-proof closures is lost when an adult has left even a small amount of the medication where kids can get it. While medications are often labeled 'keep away from children,' no products to our knowledge note extreme danger, such as warning that one pill can kill a young child," study author J. Elise Bailey of the RADARS (Researched Abuse, Diversion and Addiction-Related Surveillance) System, an operation of the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center - Denver Health and Hospital Authority in Denver, says in a news release.

"Since one tablet of an opioid may be lethal to a young child, we clearly need much better interventions to prevent further damage and deaths from these powerful drugs," Bailey says.

American College of Emergency Physicians' president Linda Lawrence, MD, urges caregivers -- and their visitors -- to keep all medicines far out of reach of all children.

"Grandparents or other relatives who visit may carry these drugs with them in a jacket or a suitcase," Lawrence says. "Kids love to explore grandma's purse, so make sure all medication is safely secured away from little hands."

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