Most American kids ages 5 and under don’t regularly take prescription or over-the-counter drugs. Thank goodness for that. Still, there is growing evidence that such medications pose a tremendous threat to them. The number of children accidentally poisoned by drugs has increased dramatically in recent years. The data is compelling, and strongly suggests that new ways to help safeguard youngsters from harm are needed.
A new study reported in the Journal of Pediatrics indicates the scope and severity of the problem. It involved more than half a million children who had visited an emergency room between 2001 and 2008 after accidental poisonings by a medication. The incidents almost always took place at home. The number of poisonings rose 22 percent in that period, even though the number of kids in that age group had increased by only 8 percent in the same timeframe. That’s troublesome.
More worrisome still is the fact that the number of accidental drug poisonings is rising after declining from from 1990 to 2000. It’s easy to play the blame game in this instance, but that serves little useful purpose. The more important task is to admit there is a problem, dissect it and then use the information gained to take decisive steps to reduce or eliminate it.
In about 95 percent of the cases studied — including cases reported here — the poisoning took place because a youngster took the medication on his or her own. Prescription drugs accounted for about 55 percent of cases of drug-poisoning trips to the ER, but accounted for almost 75 percent of serious incidents. Indeed, more than 40 percent of kids admitted to hospitals after accidentally taking a prescription drug ended up in intensive care.
Researchers report, too, that the major poisoning agents for the youngsters were pain relief drugs like codeine and oxycodone, muscle relaxants, sleep aids and drugs used to treat heart ailments. The scientists even offered a theory why more youngsters have access to such drugs. It’s almost a classic instance of availability.
More and more adults with young children in the home, they say, have medical problems — high blood pressure and cardiovascular ailments, diabetes and stress — that are treated by prescription medication. Older siblings of kids increasingly take drugs too, most often for diabetes and disorders such as ADHD. The more drugs at home, the more likely a youngster is to have access to them. The tried-and-true methods of keeping drugs out of the hands and mouths of kids, it is clear, are not sufficient.
Child-safety and other tamper-proof packaging likely was responsible for the decline in accidental poisonings from 1990-2000, but some adults now opt for easy-to-open caps. They say safety caps are too hard for them to open. And the idea of a locked medicine cabinet has never caught on. It’s too much trouble, people say.
That’s nonsense. Pharmaceutical makers can improve packaging, but it’s really the job of parents and other adults to prevent curious kids from poisoning themselves with drugs found at home. Those who truly care for children should willingly undertake the task.