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Accidental Ingestion of Drugs by Young Children

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Parents are often vigilant about what substances are available to their young children. Movies not rated “G” are placed in a separate closet, cleaning supplies are removed from low kitchen cabinets, and every imaginable safety device is attached to outlets, windows, furniture corners and toilet seats.

Some of the greatest hazards for young children, however, are some of the smallest things in our home. Medications, small and often brightly colored, are tempting to young eyes and hands, and often overlooked by caregivers when baby proofing a home. In some cases, parents meticulously safeguard babies at home, but are unable to extend the same awareness to the child’s grandparents’ homes.

The Drug Abuse Warning Network analyzes emergency department visits that involve drugs, including accidental ingestion by children. Data is collected nation-wide, but does not include children’s hospitals or other specialty hospitals.

The 2008 report shows that there were approximately 100,340 emergency department visits involving accidental ingestion of drugs. 68.9 percent of the visits were made by patients 6 years old or younger. Of the visits 42.3 percent were 2 years old, and 29.5 percent were 1 year old. Males accounted for slightly over half of the visits.

Emergency department visits by children with accidental drug ingestion involved many different types of drugs. Pharmaceuticals were the most common, involved in 99.0 percent of the visits, with alcohol or illicit drugs involved in 1.0 percent of visits.

Drugs that affect the central nervous system (such as ibuprofen and benzodiazepines) were involved in 40.8 percent of the emergency department visits. The largest percentage of drugs involved were pain relievers (21.1 percent) and drugs used to treat anxiety and insomnia (11.6 percent).

Many of the children who visit the emergency department for accidental drug ingestion are admitted to the hospital. While 85.3 percent were treated and released, 8.7 percent were admitted for inpatient care. Of the patients admitted, 20 percent were admitted into the intensive or critical care unit.

The high number of emergency department visits for accidental drug ingestion highlights the problem of leaving medications where young children can access them. Though most children are treated and released, many are required to be admitted to the hospital, with some even requiring intensive care.

Education for parents should include warnings about monitoring the medications of guests in their homes. Parents should also be given tips for helping grandparents or other relatives that have care of the child to understand the potential hazards and keep dangerous medications out of the reach of children.

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