Medication overdoses send one in every 180 U.S. 2-year-olds to the emergency department every year, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Such overdoses are responsible for more than two-thirds of all childhood poisonings.
Most of the time, these cases occur when a child finds a medicine and eats or drinks it without adult supervision, Dr. Daniel S. Budnitz, who directs the Medication Safety Program at the CDC's Division of Healthcare Quality and Promotion and led the study, told Reuters Health.
"Although there have been some great stride in preventing deaths from overdoses with the traditional child-resistant caps ... it might be time to kind of take the next step," Budnitz said. He said the CDC is working with manufacturers and other agencies to come up with innovative packaging that reduces the likelihood that a child can take too much of a medication.
While the number of calls to poison control centers nationwide is declining, Budnitz and his team note in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the percentage of those calls that involve medicines rather than household products such as cleaners and pesticides jumped from 34 percent to 44 percent from 2002 to 2006.
It's not clear why, Budnitz said in an interview, but the fact that people are simply taking more medicines these days could be a factor.
To better understand how to prevent unintentional medication overdoses in children, the researchers looked at data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System for 2004-2005 on visits to emergency departments for unintentional poisoning by patients 18 and under.
Medication accounted for 68.9 percent of these visits, or an estimated 71,224 visits every year, Budnitz and his team found. Over-the-counter products were responsible for a third of the medication-related poisonings.
The most common medications involved were acetaminophen (Tylenol), representing 9.3 percent of cases; cough and cold medicines, 7.3 percent; antidepressants, 6.1 percent; and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil), 5.3 percent.
Four out of five visits were due to children ingesting medications on their own, while 14.3 percent involved misuse of medications, for example a child being given too large a dose by an adult, or being dosed too frequently.
The youngest children were most at risk, with kids 5 and under accounting for 81.3 percent of the medication-related poisonings. As children got older their likelihood of unintentional medication overdose decreased, but rose again during adolescence, possibly because parents were allowing them to take medications on their own, Budnitz and his team note.
"These are not teens who are trying to get high or kill themselves," Budnitz noted, but who simply may not understand how to use medicines. "Really you can only take medicines as directed. If the bottle says take two for pain it doesn't mean that taking eight will be even better."
Parents should know, he added, that teens may still need guidance in using medications properly.
And it's also crucial for parents to tightly close the caps of medicine bottles and put them up out of the reach of children, he added. Putting medicines in a place that's "convenient" for parents, he said, may also mean that it's easy for kids to reach too.