New research shows there has been a sharp rise in the US in recent years in the number of young children seen in emergency departments or admitted to hospital because of accidental pharmaceutical poisoning from taking a potentially toxic dose of medication. A report on the study, from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, appeared online in the Journal of Pediatrics earlier today.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, says that more than 70,000 emergency visits each year are due to unintentional overdoses among children under the age of 18.

The numbers are now so bad that the CDC set up the PROTECT Initiative, a collaboration of public health agencies, private sector companies, professional organizations, consumer/patient advocates and academic experts to to stop unintended medication overdose in children.

First author Dr Randall Bond, medical director of the Drug and Poison Information Center at Cincinnati Children’s, and also emergency medicine physician there, is presenting a report on the study at a PROTECT Initiative meeting in Atlanta on the 20th of September.

Bond told the media that every year, “more children are exposed, more are seen in emergency departments, more are admitted to hospitals, and more are harmed”. He said:

“The problem of pediatric medication poisoning is getting worse, not better.”

He and his study co-authors found that of the cases of accidental poisoning in young children in the US, exposure to prescription medications accounts for:

  • 55% of emergency visits,
  • 76% of admissions, and
  • 71% of significant harm.

Particularly high among the prescription medications most commonly swallowed accidentally by young children were opioids (frequently prescribed for pain), sedatives-hypnotics (mostly prescribed as sleep aids), and cardiovascular drugs.

Bond said efforts to prevent these accidental poisonings happening in the home are not working.

He and his colleagues found that the largest proportion of increased admissions, injuries and deaths in recent years has been been as a result of children finding and swallowing pills on their own, and errors in giving children medication at home are relatively uncommon and have increased little.

“We need to improve storage devices and child-resistant closures and perhaps require mechanical barriers, such as blister packs,” urged Bond.

“Our efforts can’t ignore society’s problem with opioid and sedative abuse or misuse,” he added.

For the study, Bond and colleagues examined patient records in the National Poison Data system covering the period 2001 to 2008. This electronic database records all calls made to centers that are members of the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

They reviewed over 450,000 records relating to children aged 5 and under, who were exposed to a potentially toxic dose of either prescription or over the counter pharmaceutical drugs.

Bond said the most likely reason for the sharp rise is because of the rise in medications that are around small children. This is supported by surveys that show more adults are taking more prescription medications today than ten years ago.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD