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Kids and Grown-ups Can Mistake Candy for Medicine

Study Conducted by Schoolchildren Shows Pills Can Easily Be Mistaken for Candy
By Cari Nierenberg
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Oct. 17, 2011 -- Adults may not be much smarter than 5-year-olds at telling some medications apart from candy.

One in five teachers and more than one in four kindergarteners had a hard time figuring out which pills were over-the-counter medicines and which ones were sweets, a study shows.

In a small study carried out by two now seventh-grade girls, a medicine cabinet stocked with 20 different candies and similarly looking medications was brought into a suburban Cincinnati elementary school.

The girls chose 30 grade-school teachers and 30 kindergarten students (eight of whom could read and 22 who couldn't). All the participants completed a survey asking them to identify the pills they thought were candy from the items found in the medicine cabinet.

The teachers and the youngsters were also questioned about whether they took any daily medications and where they stored medicines at home.

The results were presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition in Boston.

Mistaking Candy for Medicine

As a group, teachers correctly distinguished between candy and medicine at a rate of nearly 78%, while the kids had a rate of 71%.

Not surprisingly, kindergarteners who could not read got an average score of 67%, compared to 79% by their classmates who could.

SweetTarts was the candy most likely to fool the study participants. Slightly more than half of them confused it with the antacid Mylanta or Tums.

Half of the volunteers mistook Reese's Pieces for Sine-Off (a sinus/cold medicine). And slightly more than 40% of them mixed up M&Ms and Coricidin (a cold medicine).

"The candies most frequently mistaken were circular objects, those similar in color and shine, and those with no distinguishable markings," Eleanor Bishop, one of two Ohio schoolgirls who conducted the research, says in a news release. Michael Gittelman, MD, an emergency room physician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital and his daughter, Casey, were also involved in the study.

In addition, their survey found that more than three-fourths of teachers and students did not store their medications locked and out of reach at home.

Young children could accidentally swallow medicines if they confuse their appearance with candy and when they're not safely stored at home, the researchers point out. They suggest that improving efforts to educate families about how to safely store medicines can help prevent future problems.

This study was presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

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