Children Poisoned by Medications a Common Cause of ER Visits

Most of these events are avoidable, experts say

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By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Jan. 12, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Medications taken accidentally by young children account for an estimated 53,517 nonfatal visits to emergency departments each year in the United States, a new federal study has found.

Children aged 4 and younger are commonly treated for taking medications intended for others or given in error, although those aged 1 and 2 account for 72 percent of these accidents. Seventy-five percent of these exposures occur in the home. Of the children taken to emergency rooms, almost one in 10 were hospitalized or transferred for specialized care, according to the report.

"Medications are far and away the most common ingestions for which children are treated in the emergency department," said study co-author Dr. Dan Budnitz, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion.

"We found that from 2001 to 2003 there are about 53,000 young children treated in the emergency department after swallowing medications that were not intended for them," Budnitz said.

The findings appear in the Jan. 13 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

To determine the extent of the problem, researchers used data from 3,600 sample cases. They found that about 42 percent of the cases resulted from ingesting common over-the-counter drugs, including vitamins, and 39.2 percent were from prescription drugs. The remaining cases involved ingesting a combination of drugs or an unknown medication.

These poisonings are preventable, Budnitz said. There are three things that parents or caregivers can do to prevent such accidents, he said.

First, keep medication out of sight and reach of young children. Second, don't assume that keeping medications in purses or pill boxes will keep them away from children. Third, pay close attention when giving medication to children to ensure they are getting the right drug and the correct dose.

"Young children continue to swallow medications, or doses of medications, that were not intended for them," Budnitz said. "Parents should be vigilant, whether it's storing their own medications, or other medications, or properly administering medications to children."

One expert agrees that, with a little care, most of these cases can be avoided.

"Parents must recognize that any medicine is a potential poison when taken in high dose, or by the wrong person," said Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine.

"The precautions we take with dangerous chemicals should also be applied to seemingly innocuous items, such as Tylenol, cold remedies and even vitamins," Katz said. "Pill vials should be securely closed, hidden away and stored at a height young children can't reach."

Katz said parents should view any type of medication as potentially harmful to children. "When all pills and supplements are viewed by parents as a potential hazard to young children, we should be able to cut down significantly on the tragic and avoidable toll of unintended exposures and overdoses," he said.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more tips on preventing poisoning.

SOURCES: Dan Budnitz, M.D., Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion, National Center for Infectious Diseases, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of public health, director, Prevention Research Center Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; Jan. 13, 2006, CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report

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