Every year, half a million kids age 5 and younger get into household medications and are poisoned. Though parents tend to believe that these tragic accidents will never happen to their kids, Dr. Randall Bond, a leading advocate for better prescription drug safety in the home, is proof that it can happen to anyone.
"We had a bottle of Sudafed in the top shelf of the cabinet in our bedroom, and we thought our children would never get into it," he says. "But sure enough, we had guests over and my daughter, who was 3 at the time, opened all the drawers, climbed onto the counter, and opened up the medicine cabinet and started to take it."
Luckily, Bond got to his daughter before an emergency room visit was necessary, but this is not the case for the 50,000 kids each year who end up in the ER when they are accidentally poisoned with household pharmaceuticals -- and that number is on the rise.
According to research led by Bond and his colleagues at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, the number of kids under 5 seeking emergency medical care because of these poisonings increased by 28 percent between 2001 and 2008.
"Ninety-five percent of these visits were related to kids getting into somebody's medicine, not due to misdosing of their own medicine and the vast majority were of prescription meds," says Bond.
This may be due to the fact that more people are prescribed prescription painkillers than in the past, so these drugs are more present in the home, says Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital. Prescriptions for the painkiller oxycodone, for example, have gone up more than 500 percent in recent years, he says.
Because kids spend most of their time at home, having more prescription drugs, especially potent ones like opiate painkillers, poses a great threat to toddlers and preschoolers, who tend to explore their surroundings, Smith says.
These drugs can have deadly consequences, much more so than over-the-counter meds, Bond says: "One 80 milligram oxycodone is enough to kill a child -- he'll stop breathing."
The rise in child poisonings by prescription drugs has led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to spearhead Project Initiative, a collaboration between the Food and Drug Administration, private sector companies and consumer/patient advocates, which meets next week to discuss medication safety and how to better design medication packaging to make it more childproof.
While the mantra for keeping household medications kidproof has always been to keep them "up and away and out of sight," this doesn't always work around curious toddlers, as Bond learned from his own experience.
"We need to build better 'mousetraps' so that adults can still get into the bottles but kids cannot. Parents also need to be more vigilant, especially when grandparents, who tend to have more medications, visit or the kids go to their grandparents," Bond says.
Get Rid of Unused Meds
One option for parents is to lock away their medication, especially sedatives, cardiac medications and painkillers, which are most likely to be deadly when ingested by children, says Smith.
It's also important for parents to get rid of extra medications so that there are not numerous prescription drugs hanging around the house, says Dr. William Shrank, a professor of medicine at Harvard University.
"There's growing evidence that more and more teens are getting hooked on the prescription drugs that they can get in their own medicine cabinet or those of family members, and this study further highlights how keeping these unused medication around can be dangerous for younger kids as well," he says.
Millions of pounds of prescription medications go unused every year in the U.S., according to the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists. While most people leave these extra pill bottles in the back of the medicine cabinet, they should be bringing back unused pills to their doctors, to pharmacists or to established Prescription Drug Take-Back days sponsored biannually by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
Pills should not be flushed, as is often depicted in movies, because they can contaminate the water supply.