Children reporting to the emergency room for medicinal ingestion is up more than 30 percent in the past decade, according to SafeKids Worldwide, a non-profit organization that works with 600 coalitions in the United States with partners in 23 countries around the world.
Children are swallowing the wrong dosages of medications because adults are making it too easy for kids to gain access to these medications, said Kate Carr, president and CEO of SafeKids. More often than not, pills are being left in pill boxes (which are not child-resistant), on countertops and dressers or purses within reach of even the youngest kids.
And 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, she told FoxNews.com.
SafeKids Worldwide collected data from a variety of sources. It looked at Consumer Product Safety Commission data and examined narratives from many hospitals regarding children ages 4 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 kids (ages 5 and younger) linked to accidental medicinal poisonings.
“That’s a big number,” Carr said about the phone calls.
The study also looked at 10 focus groups, comprised of mothers and sometimes grandmothers, to understand why this number had spiked.
The results, which were released Wednesday for National Poison Control Week, were astonishing:
“We found while parents understand that medicine should be up and away, kids are getting into medicine. Eighty-six percent of ER visits were due to the child getting into an adult’s medicine,” Carr said. “It could have been a parent or a grandparent, or an aunt or an uncle.”
Carr said kids have easier access to medications these days – they are carelessly being left where kids can reach them, sometimes kids are even finding them on the floor, and of course, “kids put everything in their mouth.”
Of the 67,000 ER visits in 2011 – that’s 1 child every 8 minutes – 12,000 required hospitalization, Carr 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.”
Dr. Stephen Teach, an associate chief of emergency medicine at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., said SafeKids’ report was really on par with what he has seen in his 25 years as a doctor.
Teach, who was not involved in SafeKids’ report findings, said on an average day, he sees at least one – or more – children come into his hospital who have ingested medicine he or she should not have – and more often than not, the medicine belongs to another adult family member.
“These kids are resourceful,” Teach told FoxNews.com. “They find pills on the ground, on the kitchen counter, table . . . they like to open up pill boxes; they think that’s fun. And, often, they mistake these pills for candy, even if they don’t taste like candy. But, that doesn’t prevent them from biting into them and swallowing them and suffering side effects.”
Teach said because children are smaller than adults, the adult dosage can be toxic.
Then there is the case of liquid medications, Teach added. Many liquid medicines – such as fever reducers, cough and cold medication and antibiotics – are flavored to taste better, so Teach has seen examples of children drinking an entire bottle of medicine, just because it tasted good.
“It depends on the substance, but if it’s acetaminophen, it can have immediate toxic side effects and then several days later,” he said.
One of the more dramatic examples Teach has seen involved a small child who everyone assumed was suffering from meningitis.
“He was transferred to us with a fever, stiff back, crying inconsolably,” Teach said. “Everyone thought it was an infection, but I was taking his history, and I’m looking at him – and I didn’t think that. I asked if he had access to medicines, and the parents said no. Sometimes we have to be detectives . . .it turns out the grandmother was taking medicine for Parkinson’s disease, and he found a pill on the floor, which he took and had temporary movement disorder, which gradually resolved itself with supportive care.”
But, this incidence highlighted a few things to Teach: Parents need to be open-minded when calling their doctor’s office or Poison Control Center, and they must be aware of all the medicines around the child – and keep them out of reach.
Other common medications that kids are finding and taking include headache relief, diaper rash ointment and vitamins.
In particular, diaper rash treatments can harm kids’ lungs, and certain vitamins, like A, C, K and iron can be very toxic in large doses to children, Carr said.
“First and foremost, keep all medicine away, all the time,” Carr said.
Carr 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 OK.
Carr said the increase has to do with a few reasons: There are currently more life-saving medications available to the public (not just over-the-counter, but prescription, too), and many families live in multi-generational households.
“The older we get, the more meds we might need,” Carr 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.”
The report showed children ages 13 to 24 months represented 68 percent of medication-related error and dosing ER visits, among children ages 4 and younger.