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Drug poisonings send 22% more young children to EDs over 7 years

Physicians can help by warning patients not to leave medications out in the open. Incidents involve self-ingestion 95% of the time, a study finds.

By Tanya Albert Henry — Posted Sept. 30, 2011

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Renewed educational efforts and changes in medication packaging and storage devices can help reduce the rising number of children visiting emergency departments for drug poisoning, according to a study.

The number of children 5 and younger visiting the ED for exposure to medication rose 22% between 2001 and 2008, even though the number of children in the age group grew by 8% during that time, said the study, published online Sept. 16 in The Journal of Pediatrics. The uptick followed a decade of decline in those numbers (link).

Researchers analyzed data reported to the American Assn. of Poison Control Centers between 2001 and 2008 on 544,133 children 5 and younger who visited the ED because they may have been poisoned by medication. They found:

  • 95% of visits resulted from self-ingestion, not parents overdosing a child.
  • 55% of visits, 76% of hospital admissions and 71% of significant injuries were due to prescription drug ingestion, particularly opioid-containing pain medications, sedative hypnotics and cardiovascular medications.
  • 40% of visits involved over-the-counter medication.

Study authors said the most likely explanation for the increase is the rise in the number of medications available in these young children's environment. For example, they said obesity and metabolic syndrome have increased, so more homes may contain antihypertensive and antidiabetic medicines.

Lead study author G. Randall Bond, MD, said education will be important in solving the problem.

"That is the biggest role physicians can play," said Dr. Bond, medical director of the Cincinnati Drug and Poison Information Center and emergency physician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. "The public health message to parents is how quickly things can happen and how even a small dose can affect a child."

Doctors can remind patients that they shouldn't leave a pill on a counter -- where children can find it -- as a reminder to take it. Instead, they suggest using a smartphone application or setting an alarm as a reminder, Dr. Bond said.

But education alone is unlikely to make a significant improvement, he said. Medication packaging and storage devices need to be addressed, the study said.

"Mechanical barriers to ingestion such as blister packs may be required for more substances," the study concluded. "Preventive efforts should also address appropriate prescribing and society's problem with opioid and sedative abuse."

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