More than 50,000 children end up in the emergency room each year due to accidental medicine-related poisonings.
Child-resistant packaging has helped prevent many medicine-related poisonings among children. But a new report finds that more work needs to be done and parents still need to store medicines properly to keep their children safe.
The nonprofit group Safe Kids Worldwide reports that a child under the age of 6 in the United States dies from an accidental medicine-related poisoning every 12 days. Every nine minutes, a child goes to the emergency department for that same reason, and every hour a child is hospitalized as a result.
The organization also surveyed 2,000 parents with children under age 6 about their knowledge of how to childproof medicines. Nine out of 10 parents surveyed know that medicines should be stored out of sight of children and up high after every use. But many parents need to improve how they actually put away medicines. Nearly seven in 10 parents admitted they stored a medicine within sight of a child, such as on a shelf above counter height. But “up high” isn’t enough by itself. The report cites research showing that about half of over-the-counter medicine poisonings involved a child climbing to reach the medicine.
The survey also found that one in three parents incorrectly believed that it doesn’t matter where a medicine is stored as long as a child is being watched. Parents who turn their backs for “only a minute” can end up taking their child to the emergency department. Nonetheless, hospitalizations for accidental poisonings in children under age 6 have declined to 8,972 incidents, a drop of 42 percent from their peak in 2010.
Emergency department visits for child medicine poisonings also decreased to about 57,000, a 25 percent drop.
Declines in both categories, though, slowed between 2014 and 2015, showing that more work needs to be done.
Designing child-resistant packaging
The success of child-resistant packaging — or its reputation — may be responsible in part for the continuing high number of child poisonings. Almost half of parents surveyed thought that kids can’t get into a child-resistant package.
But “child-resistant” isn’t the same as “childproof.” This type of packaging is just meant to slow down a child — although in reality it doesn’t always.
In a test that Safe Kids Worldwide set up for CBS News, several children between the ages of 3 and 5 were able to open child-resistant pill bottles in a few seconds. Child-resistant packaging, also known as special packaging, must be both child-resistant and senior-friendly. So manufacturers can’t make it so hard to open for kids that older adults can’t get into the bottles either.
The federal government lists which substances have to be in child-resistant packaging. It also provides guidelines on how these packages are tested. To be child-resistant, 85 percent of tested children under 5 years old mustn’t be able to open the package within five minutes. That means 15 percent of children can. During the testing, children are allowed to use their hands or teeth to open the packaging, which mimics the real world.
With small hands, children may have a harder time opening packaging. One 2016 study of child-resistant pill bottles found that 3-year-olds to 5-year-olds were able to apply the least amount of force — torque — to the caps compared to other age groups. But kids also have other ways to tackle packages. In that study, when young children used three fingers, they were able to apply more force than adults using two fingers. Add to this children watching other kids or adults open the packaging — and learning from them — and the child resistance may drop even more. Seniors and other adults taking several medications may also inadvertently circumvent child-resistant packaging by using pill minders — the boxes that have a slot for each day’s medicines.
A 2017 study found that the presence of a pill minder in a home almost doubled the risk of accidental medicine poisoning in a child. The best way to keep kids safe is to assume they can open medicine packaging.
Safe Kids Worldwide offers several tips for how to store medicine safely:
- Keep all medicines, vitamins, and other harmful products out of children’s reach and out of sight. Put these away immediately after every use.
- If you store your medicine in a purse or bag, store those up high and out of sight.
- Close medicine caps tightly after every use. If you use pill boxes, be even more cautious about storing them safely.
- Be alert to visitors’ medicines and medicines in homes where you are a guest. Ask your visitors, friends, or family to put these medicines out of reach and sight of your child.
- If you need to remind yourself to take your medicines, use an alarm on your watch or cellphone, or write yourself a note.
Also, keep the Poison Control number posted in your house and stored in your phone: 800-222-1222.