Accidental Swallowing of Drugs Sends Kids to ER

New Government Report Highlights Importance of Locking Up Medications

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on October 14, 2010

Oct. 14, 2010 -- Tens of thousands of children age 5 and under are treated in emergency rooms annually for accidental ingestion of drugs, including common pain relievers found in medicine cabinets, a new study shows.

The report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that 68.9% of 100,340 emergency department visits for accidental ingestion of drugs in 2008 were made by kids 5 or younger.

The study also shows that:

  • 42.3% of the ER visits involved 2-year-olds, and 29.5% of the patients were only age 1.
  • 55.7% of the visits were made by boys age 5 or younger.
  • 40.8% of the visits involved medications that act on the central nervous system, including pain relievers (21.1%) and drugs for insomnia and anxiety (11.6%).
  • 15.7% of the visits involved heart disease medications.
  • 10.3% involved respiratory system drugs.

Lock Up Your Drugs

“Poisoning is one of the most common childhood injuries,” Pamela S. Hyde, JD, administrator of SAMHSA, says in a news release. “Locking up drugs and properly disposing leftover or expired drugs can save lives.”

She says such information “provides us an opportunity to get the message out to parents and caregivers that there are simple steps they can take to prevent accidental drug ingestion.”

The study shows 85.3% of the children taken to emergency rooms for accidental drug ingestion were treated and released; 8.7% were admitted to hospitals and 5% were transferred to other health care facilities.

The study is based on SAMHSA’s 2008 Drug Abuse Warning Network, called DAWN, which is a public health surveillance system that monitors drug-related emergency department visits throughout the U.S.

The study shows that 21.1% of the ER visits were related to accidental ingestion of pain relievers, 10.1% for acetaminophen, 6.6% for ibuprofen, and 3.9% for narcotic pain relievers.

Among other findings:

  • 11.6% of visits were due to ingestion of drugs for anxiety or insomnia.
  • 2.7% of visits were due to ingestion of central nervous system stimulants.
  • 8.6% of the visits were due to accidental ingestion of psychotherapeutic drugs, 6.2% for taking antidepressants, 2.9% for antipsychotics, 8.6% for topical medications, and 5% for drugs treating metabolic disorders.
  • 1% of visits involved alcohol or illicit drugs.

Preventing Kids From Swallowing Drugs

The DAWN report cautions that as soon as infants learn to crawl, and especially when they learn to walk, their mobility, curiosity, and natural tendency is to “put things in their mouths,” making many substances in the home a potential danger. “While caretakers may be alert to securing obviously dangerous substances such as cleaning products and chemicals, they may be less aware of the danger of leaving pharmaceutical products belonging to parents or other family members in accessible places,” the report says. “This can pose a serious threat of accidental ingestion by infants and toddlers.”

The report says that accidental ingestion of drugs represents a public health problem and the findings point out “a critical need for increased education and awareness among caregivers” and the importance of storing medications in secure locations.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Show Sources


News release, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The DAWN Report, October 2010.

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