Did you know that medications are the leading cause of child poisoning? Each year, thousands of children are rushed to emergency rooms due to being accidentally poisoned by medications.
Children are naturally curious about the world around them, so as their caregivers, we must be vigilant about keeping them safe. People underestimate how clever children can be and how dangerous medication can be for little ones.
Basic Safety Tips
- All medication should be kept out of sight and out of reach of children.
- It should be stored in bottles with safety caps to prevent them from easily opening the container.
- When trying to get your child to take medication, don’t EVER tell them it’s candy! It will make it much more appealing to them at times you don’t want them taking it.
- Don’t take your own medication in front of kids. Little ones like to imitate, and when they see YOU taking your medicine, they can sometimes find something to swallow, pretending they’re taking medicine too.
- Tell your children to never take medication that comes from anyone other than a parent, caregiver, school nurse, etc.
- Help them understand that medication should only be taken by the person it has been prescribed to, and that it could be dangerous for someone else to take it.
Safe Medication Dosing for Children
People sometimes make incorrect assumptions about how to dose medication for children. Prescription medications are clearly marked, but it can be a real issue with over-the-counter (OTC) medications.
For example, a common question I get relates to how much cough medicine should be given to a toddler, like a two year old. People sometimes make the assumption that because a two-year-old is half as old as a four-year-old, they should get half the dose. But that’s not the way it works. Dosing is related not only to the patient’s age, but also the patient’s weight and their body’s ability to handle that medication. So it’s not as simple as it may seem.
The FDA has restricted pharmacists from making recommendations for OTC medications for anybody under the age of six. There are considerable differences from child-to-child, and there is generally a lack of agreed-upon information on how to dose certain medications for small children.
Parents should contact their child’s physician regarding how to dose OTC medications for their small children. The doctor knows your child, and can give you the best recommendation.
Accidental Overdosing on Acetaminophen
It’s important to make sure you’re not overdosing on acetaminophen (aka Tylenol). The reason this can happen so easily is that many medications these days, such as “Tylenol Cold and Flu” have a significant dose of acetaminophen in them, and then people take additional acetaminophen in other medications that may not say “Tylenol” on it.
Too much acetaminophen is toxic to the liver, and an overdose can happen easily if labels aren’t carefully read. A single incident may not cause a great deal of harm, but chronic overuse of acetaminophen has been linked to liver toxicity and failure. This effect is heightened when acetaminophen is mixed with any alcohol—including medications (such as cough syrups) that contain alcohol.
Safe Storage of Medication
The “medicine cabinet” in your bathroom is one of the worst places to store medicine. Medication (prescription or OTC) needs to be stored where it’s cool, dark and dry. A humid, steamy bathroom doesn’t qualify.
A great location to store medication is in a plastic tote on a shelf in a closet, or perhaps a kitchen cabinet. Of course, certain medications require refrigeration, and they should be stored in the refrigerator in an area where it can’t accidentally contaminate food.
Some medications, such as prescription painkillers, should be stored out of the reach (and even knowledge) of others. Teenagers, visitors, etc. should have no idea where this medication is, and it would be even better if they can’t access it (i.e. it’s locked up).
Safe Disposal of Medication
Finally, it’s important to get rid of unwanted medication in the safest way possible.
The safe disposal of expired or “leftover” medication is important. It helps prevent accidental ingestion or abuse, and also protects our environment. Due to incorrect disposal methods used in the past, many medications have actually shown up in our tap water.
Here are some recommendations from the FDA:
- Follow any specific disposal instructions on the drug label or patient information that accompanies the medication.
- Do not flush prescription drugs down the toilet unless this information specifically instructs you to do so.
- Take advantage of community drug take-back programs that allow the public to bring unused drugs to a central location for proper disposal. Call your city or county government's household trash and recycling service (see blue pages in phone book) to see if a take-back program is available in your community.
- The Drug Enforcement Administration, working with state and local law enforcement agencies, is sponsoring National Prescription Drug Take Back Days throughout the United States. (more info at http://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_disposal/index.html)
- If no instructions are given on the drug label and no take-back program is available in your area, throw the drugs in the household trash, but first:
- Take medications out of their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter. The medication will be less appealing to children and pets, and unrecognizable to people who may intentionally go through your trash.
- Put them in a sealable bag, empty can, or other container to prevent the medication from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag.
- Before throwing out a medicine container, scratch out all identifying information on the prescription label to make it unreadable. This will help protect your identity and the privacy of your personal health information.
- Do not give medications to friends. Doctors prescribe drugs based on a person's specific symptoms and medical history. A drug that works for you could be dangerous for someone else.
- When in doubt about proper disposal, talk to your pharmacist.