Kids Vulnerable to Medicine Mishaps

Taking Medicine by Mistake Sends Thousands of Kids to Hospitals Each Year

Medically Reviewed by Ann Edmundson, MD, PhD on January 12, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 12, 2006 -- The CDC is warning parents and others who care for young children to make sure kids can't get hold of medicines and that medicines are given properly to children.

In recent years, about 53,500 children aged 4 and younger per year were treated at U.S. hospitals for unintended medication exposure, the CDC reports.

That figure is an estimate. It's based on records of more than 3,600 children treated at U.S. hospitals for unintended, nonfatal, exposure to medications from 2001-2003. Children exposed to illicit drugs or alcohol were not included in the analysis.

Most kids were 1 or 2 years old at the time of the medication mishaps, three-quarters of which happened at home.

Hazards at Home

The accidents included the swallowing of prescription drugs and over-the-counter products, including vitamins.

The figures appear in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

In many cases, children had swallowed their parents' or grandparents' pills. Some had gotten the medicines from an open container or purse. Others had been given the medicine by mistake.

A wide range of products was involved, including acetaminophen (Tylenol), antidepressants, vitamins, over-the-counter cold remedies, prescription skin creams, and drugs for allergies, asthma, and heart disease.

The CDC's report only covers kids treated at hospitals. Children who got care elsewhere or no treatment at all weren't included.

Curiosity + Access = Trouble

None of the children in the CDC's report died as a result of unintended medicine exposures.

But fatal accidents can happen and it's up to parents or other caregivers to keep kids away from medicines, the CDC says.

Children age 4 and younger "can reach items on a table, in a purse, or in a drawer, where medications are often stored," states the CDC's report, adding that young kids often put items they find into their mouths.

Child-resistant containers help but aren't totally childproof, the CDC warns.

"Parents and others responsible for supervising children should store medications securely at all times, keep them out of reach of children, and be vigilant in preventing access by children to daily-use containers such as pill boxes," the report continues.

Safety Check

Here is the CDC's advice on the safe storage of medicines and vitamins:

  • Post the national phone number for the poison control center on or near every home phone. That phone number is 800-222-1222.
  • Store all medicines in secured cabinets that kids can't access.
  • Use child-resistant caps and always close medication lids tightly after use.
  • Remember, child-resistant containers aren't childproof. Store them in a secured cabinet.
  • Whenever possible, store medicines in their original containers.
  • If you transfer medication to a pill box or other container that isn't childproof, take extra precautions to keep them away from kids.
  • Get rid of leftover or expired medicines by flushing them down a toilet.
  • Avoid taking medicines in front of children, who tend to imitate adults.
  • Never call medicine "candy."
  • Be aware of any medicines visitors bring into the home. Keep visitors' drugs secure and away from kids. Don't leave those medicines in an unattended purse or suitcase.