Children and Unintentional Swallowing of Medicines

Armen Hareyan's picture

Child Safety

Majority of Incidents Occur in the Home

Keeping medications out of the easy grasp of children four and younger in the home is a significant health issue in the United States because they are more likely to be hospitalized for unintentionally swallowing medications than other causes of unintentional injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a report released today.

From 2001-2003, an estimated 53,500 children four years and younger were treated in hospital emergency departments each year after swallowing medications not intended for them or given in error. Almost three-fourths of these children were one to two years old and 75 percent of the incidents occurred in the home. The report also indicated that children four and younger who are treated for medication exposure in the emergency room are nearly four times more likely to be hospitalized or transferred to specialized care than for other unintentional injuries.

National estimates for this study were based upon data from 3,600 sample cases from U.S. hospitals. About 40 percent of the ingestions involved common over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen, cold and cough medications, non-steroid anti-inflammatory medications, antihistamines, and vitamins. Prescription drugs accounted for most of the remaining medication ingestions. The types of medications most commonly leading to hospitalization or transfer to specialized care were anti-seizure medications, calcium channel blockers, anti-depressants, and oral diabetes medications.

Although specific information about how these incidents occurred was available for only about 15 percent of the cases, in most of these cases medications were not properly stored in their original containers, according to Dr. Dan Budnitz, one of the CDC study authors.


"Emergency room reports often do not provide detailed information on the circumstances surrounding the incidents," said Budnitz, "But the information available suggests that it's important to keep medications out of sight and reach of young children."

Unintentional incidents involving medication by young children can also result in death; while not part of this study, information from death certificates in 2002 indicated that 35 children ages four years and younger died of poisoning after swallowing medications. Also, over 550,000 incidents involving medications are reported each year for children under age six. For these reasons parents and others who are responsible for supervising children should remain vigilant in protecting children from inadvertent access to medications. Here are several prevention recommendations:

  • Store all medications in secured cabinets and out of reach of children. When possible, keep the medicines in their original containers. If medicines are transferred to other containers, be extra vigilant to ensure children do not have access to them. If you store medicines in your purse or a pill box, make sure that children do not have access.

  • Discard all unused medicines by flushing down the toilet.
    Avoid taking medicines in front of children, because they tend to imitate adults. Do not call any medicine "candy."

  • Make sure your visitors do not leave their medicines where children can easily find them.

  • Post the poison control number 1-800-222-1222 on or near every phone at home.

  • Put it in your speed dial on your mobile phone.

For more information about poisoning prevention, visit the CDC Injury Center's website at