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Parental negligence results in many children's ER visits

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
wrong medicine, children, overdose, fatalities, parental negligence

Sadly, many children are swallowing the wrong dosages of medications because adults are making it too easy for them to gain access to these medications. According to a new study released on March 20 by the nonprofit organization SafeKids Worldwide, the rate of children reporting to the emergency room for medicinal ingestion has risen more than 30% in the past decade.

SafeKids Worldwide works with 600 coalitions in the United States with partners in 23 nations around the world. Kate Carr, president and CEO of the organization notes that more often than not, pills are being left in pill boxes (which are not child-resistant), on countertops, dressers, or purses within reach of even toddlers. She explains that small children are not only curious about these medicines, they want to imitate adults, which is why they end up taking the medicine in the first place.

SafeKids Worldwide collected data from a variety of sources. It reviewed Consumer Product Safety Commission data and examined narratives from many hospitals regarding children ages four and younger during the year 2011. In addition, SafeKids analyzed data from Poison Control Centers and found more than 500,000 phone calls from parents and caregivers regarding questions about children (ages 5 and younger) linked to accidental medicinal poisonings. The study also investigated 10 focus groups, comprised of mothers and sometimes grandmothers, to understand why medicinal ingestion is soaring among children.

The investigators found that while parents understand that medicine should be kept away from their children, the children were gaining access to the medicine. Shockingly, 86% of emergency rom visits were due to the child getting into an adult’s medicine. Most often, the adults were a parent or a grandparent, an aunt, or an uncle. Ms. Carr explained that children currently have easier access to medications; they are carelessly being left where kids can reach them, sometimes children are even finding them on the floor, and of course, “kids put everything in their mouth.”

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Ms. Carr noted, of the 67,000 ER visits in 2011 (that is 1 child every 8 minutes), 12,000 required hospitalization. She added, “And while the number of fatalities may seem low in comparison, there were 25 deaths, that’s 25 families who lost a young child for something preventable.” The report found that children ages 13 to 24 months represented 68% of medication-related error and dosing emergency room visits, among children aged four and younger.

Because children are smaller than adults, the adult dosage can be toxic to them. Another factor fueling the problem is that many liquid medications, particularly fever reducers, cough and cold medication and antibiotics, are designed to have a pleasant taste (i.e., bubble gum flavor). Left on their own, children might consume an entire bottle of a tasty medication. Ms. Carr noted that other common medications that children are finding and taking include headache relief, diaper rash ointment, and vitamins. In particular, diaper rash treatments can damage a child’s lungs, and certain vitamins and supplements, such as A, C, K, and iron can be very toxic in large doses to children.

Ms. Carr offered a few explanations for the increase: there are currently more life-saving medications available to the public (not just over-the-counter, but prescription, also), and many families live in multi-generational households. “The older we get, the more meds we might need,” she said. “So (the elderly) may put their medicines in a pill box versus a child-resistant container. Our behaviors have to anticipate all things kids can get into.”

“First and foremost, keep all medicine away, all the time,” Ms. Carr stressed. She added that if you are taking your child to another person’s house, mention to that person the child is into everything, and could they please make sure their purse and/or medications are out of reach?
If your child has accidentally swallowed something he or she should not have, make sure to call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222. Medical professionals are on-hand and trained to give expert advice, and the call is free. In most cases, the center will follow up with the parent to make sure everything worked out well.

Reference: SafeKids Worldwide