Health & Wellness

60,000 kids poisoned by medicine: Don't make this common mistake

Parents may think they're smart about where they store medications, but their kids are smarter.

Nearly 60,000 young children are rushed to the hospital every year after getting into medicine not meant for them, according to a new report from Safe Kids Worldwide.

“Nine out of 10 parents know that medicine should be stored up and away and out of reach and sight, every time,” said Morag Mackay, director of research for Safe Kids Worldwide. “But we found that 7 out of 10 of them admitted to not doing that.”

The report finds a disconnect between what parents know about storing medication safely — and what they actually do.

Many parents leave medication out on kitchen counters, sinks and couches, believing babies and toddlers aren't tall enough or strong enough to reach it. Unfortunately, they probably can.

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“Children as young as a month have ended up in an emergency department because they'd been poisoned by getting into a medicine that was left within reach,” said Mackay.

No families are immune to the danger: It happened to Mackay’s own nephew, Calvin.

Shelagh Macdonald
Calvin Lloyd, 2, drank nearly an entire bottle of children's Tylenol. Luckily, he suffered no serious health effects.

MacGyver-like skills

Calvin’s mother, Shelagh Macdonald, recalls she’d been giving his baby sister Tylenol to help with teething pain. She put the bottle on a bookshelf — higher than 2-year-old Calvin’s reach — and left the room to put the baby down for a nap.

When Shelagh returned five minutes later, young Calvin proudly announced, “Mommy, I took medicine!”

“I panicked,” Shelagh said. “I hadn’t closed (the cap) all the way. He drank nearly the entire bottle of Tylenol.”

Shelagh had underestimated the MacGyver-like skills of Calvin, who stacked a step stool on top of a training potty to reach the shiny bottle of medicine that caught his eye.

Calvin suffered no serious health effects, but the outcome could have been dire.

Most poisonings related to medicine — particularly among babies and toddlers — occur within their home, Dr. Rutherfoord Rose, director of the Virginia Poison Center, told NBC News.

“Kids develop rapidly," said Rose. "They want to explore their environment. At certain ages they have a lot of hand-to-mouth activity, and so it's very common for them to explore their environment and then try to taste what they find.”

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Don’t be fooled by 'child-resistant packaging'

It only delays the time it takes a child to break into a bottle of pills.

“We've had children get into medicines because they were given the bottle half-full of tablets to use as a rattle,” said Rose.

The new Safe Kids Worldwide report includes a survey of 2,000 parents with children under age 6. While the number of children visiting an emergency department for accidental poisonings has declined since the 2010 peak, the decline has slowed in recent years.

Prescription and over-the-counter medications cause the most severe poisonings, but vitamins and supplements can also cause problems.

There are steps families can take to lower the risk for an accidental medication poisoning:

  • Keep all prescription and over-the-counter medicines out of reach and out of sight of children, preferably in a locked container or cabinet
  • Remind guests to put purses and bags that might contain medication up high, not on couches or the floor
  • Set an alarm on your phone as a reminder to take medication multiple times a day, rather than leaving it on the counter for convenience

If a child does ingest medication and is unresponsive or having trouble breathing, call 911. In other cases, call poison control at 1-800-222-1222. Safety experts recommend displaying that number prominently near home phones, and adding it as a contact in smartphones.

Shelagh Macdonald says her family’s scare with little Calvin was a wake-up call.

“Kids get into places you can’t imagine they’ll get into,” she said.

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