Medication Leading Cause of Child Poisoning in U.S.

Report: About 60,000 Children Per Year Rushed to the Emergency Room After Getting Into Medications

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on March 19, 2012
From the WebMD Archives

March 20, 2012 -- When children have access to a parent, sibling, or grandparent's medicines, it can be an accident waiting to happen, a new report shows.

A young child's instinct to put things in their mouth (including colorful-looking pills) or a kid's natural curiosity may kick in. Both of these situations can lead to medication poisonings in children.

Roughly 165 young children in the U.S. are treated in the emergency rooms every day after getting into medications, says a new report from Safe Kids Worldwide. That's more than 60,000 kids a year ages 5 and under who unintentionally take a medicine or overdose on it.

Over the last 25 years, the poisoning death rate among American children ages 14 and under has steadily dropped. But during this same time period, the number of poisoning deaths linked to accidental medication poisoning has almost doubled from 36% in 1979 to about 64% in 2006.

With more medications than ever available in homes, whether it's prescription drugs, over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, herbs, and dietary supplements, this increases the chances a young person might accidentally swallow one of these products.

It's not only that a child might see medicine bottles around the house more often. Our fast-paced lifestyles may also be at fault: Family members might forget to properly store medicine away from children's reach after taking it.

Or a parent or grandparent might forget a pill bottle is in a handbag or briefcase. Or a brother or sister might leave medicine in a backpack or drawer that small hands and curious minds can get into.

The Safe Kids report suggests that 95% of unintentional medication overdose visits to emergency rooms are caused by a young child who got into a medicine while a parent or caregiver wasn't looking. Five percent are due to dosing errors made by caregivers.

Safe storage and safe dosing of medications are the keys to safe kids, according to the report.

Tips for Safe Medicine Storage

Which products are children accidentally swallowing most often?

Based on calls made to poison control centers in 2010, pain relievers -- both prescription and over-the-counter -- accounted for 31% of fatal poisonings in children age 5 and under. Allergy pills and sedatives, such as sleeping pills or antidepressants, each represent 17% of fatal poisonings in youngsters.

To help parents and caregivers prevent medicine-related emergencies, here are six safety tips from the CDC's "Up and Away and Out of Sight" educational program:

  • Store medicine in a safe and secure location that's out of sight and reach of young children (even if another dose needs to be given in a few hours).Don’t refer to medicines as candy.
  • Ask guests and babysitters to keep coats, purses, and bags with medicines in them up and away and out of sight when they visit your home.
  • Close child-resistant caps on medicine bottles every time and keep them off counters.
  • Don't use kitchen spoons to measure medicine since they are inaccurate.
  • Adults should avoid taking their medicine in front of children because they like to imitate grownups.

Show Sources


Safe Kids Worldwide: "Safe Storage, Safe Dosing, Safe Kids: A Report to the Nation on Safe Medication."

Safe Kids Worldwide: “Medicine Safety Tip Sheets.”

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