Accidental poisoning 411

More kids than ever before are victims of accidental poisoning from medications. Between 2001 and 2008, emergency departments saw a 30 percent rise in pharmaceutical exposure, and it’s no wonder. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than half of all Americans take at least one prescription medication. The elderly average as many as three.

Add to this the growing popularity of vitamins and other supplements, and it’s easy to see why so many children are getting into trouble.

In many homes, kids don’t have to look far to find medications because parents unwittingly store their pills in clear view next to the bed or beside the bathroom or kitchen sink, forgetting that the medicines are actually poisonous to their kids. Even over-the-counter medications can cause serious injury. Aspirin has been linked to a condition called Reyes Syndrome, which can cause brain damage and death, and high doses of acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) can cause permanent liver damage.

Children as young as 9 months old have been accidentally poisoned by taking medications, so the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents begin to focus on poison prevention when a baby is 6 months old.

Simple tips for safety

  • NEVER call medicine “candy.”
  • Teach children that they are never to take medications without an adult present.
  • Store medications out of a child’s sight and reach.
  • Never leave medicines unattended; the medicine bottle should always be returned to a safe (and locked) place.
  • Buy child-resistant packages when available, but remember that these are not foolproof. Keep products in their original packages to avoid confusion.
  • Purses where medicines are stored should be kept out of children’s reach. Many children are poisoned when they are playing in grandma’s purse.
  • Always read labels, follow directions and give medicines to children based on their weights and ages. Only use the dispensers packaged with children’s medications.

When safeguards fail

If a child does ingest something, it’s important to call poison control immediately by dialing (800) 222-1222 from anywhere in the U.S. Poison Control is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Have the name of the medication and, if possible, how much you think the child ingested. Poison Control offers fast, free, confidential help in English and Spanish and can walk parents through emergency first aid. Parents may avoid an unnecessary trip to the emergency department because most poisonings can be safely resolved over the phone.

Find out more information at or

Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. Email her at

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