When Little Hands Get Ahold of Big Meds

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Poisonings in children increased with access to prescriptions

June 2, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

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(dailyRx News) Modern medicine has produced an incredible variety of new medications for different conditions. These medications, however, are not candy for children — even if kids think they are.

A recent study found that an increase in child poisonings with prescription medications has occurred alongside an increase in usage by adults.

This finding means that, as adult prescriptions have increased, so have accidental poisonings by children.

The biggest problem appears to be with pain medications. However, poisonings also increased with medications for diabetes and heart conditions.

"Store all medicine out of reach of children."

The study, led by Lindsey C. Burghardt, MD, of the Division of Emergency Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts, compared accidental medication poisonings in children to prescription medication usage in adults.

The researchers used data in the National Poison Data System to identify accidental poisonings among children. The authors analyzed poisonings by age group: newborn to age 5, age 6 to 12 and age 13 to 19.

They used the National Ambulatory Medicare Care Surveys from 2000 through 2009 for information on prescriptions written for adults.

The prescriptions were divided into multiple categories: oral hypoglycemics, antihyperlipidemics, beta blockers and opioids.

Hypoglycemics are medications for people with high blood sugar. Antihyperlipidemics are used to treat high cholesterol.

Beta blockers are medications used to treat individuals with heart conditions and high blood pressure. Opioids are pain medications.

Over the ten years studied, from January 2000 to December 2009, a total of 38,485 children were exposed to oral hypoglycemics that caused poisoning or led to a poison control call.

Over that time period, 39,693 children experienced poisoning from antihyperlipidemics, 49,075 were poisoned by beta blockers and 62,416 children were poisoned by opioids.

The researchers found that rates of accidental poisonings among children have increased at a similar rate as the increase in use of prescription medications for adults.

For example, over the decade studied, opioid poisonings in children from newborn to 5 years old increased by 9 out of 100 million children each month.

In fact, the increases were the highest for all groups of medications among the newborn to age 5 group.

The link between opioid prescriptions and increases in opioid poisonings was twice as large as for other medication types.

Across the ten year period, 61 percent of the exposures and poisonings resulted in a visit to the emergency room (ER). About 17.5 percent of the poisonings resulted in serious injuries.

The highest rate of serious injuries was for opioid exposures. About a quarter (26 percent) of kids who were exposed to opioids had serious injuries.

Of the children who were exposed to hypoglycemics and beta blockers, 60 percent had to go to the ER.

Meanwhile, 46 percent of the children exposed to opioids went to the ER, and 25 percent of kids who took antihyperlipidemics went to the ER.

The highest rate of visits to the ER was among children from newborn to age 5. Sixty-three percent of ER visits for beta blockers and 61 percent of ER visits for hypoglycemics were children in this age group.

Most teens who were exposed to any of the drug groups had to go to the ER.

When looked at on a yearly basis, approximately 3,195 children per year from newborn to age 5 were exposed to or poisoned by oral hypoglycemics. The rate for antihyperlipidemics was 3,486 children, from newborn to age 5, each year.

For opioids, approximately 3,293 children from newborn to age were exposed to or poisoned by the medications each year. For beta blockers, the number of newborn to 5-year-olds poisoned or exposed annually was 3,858.

The largest number outside of this age group was the 2,330 teenagers, aged 13 to 19, who were exposed to opioids each year.

The researchers concluded that the increase in child poisonings means better prevention strategies need to be developed, especially for certain medication types.

The study was published June 3 in the journal Pediatrics.

The research was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 30, 2013
Last Updated:
August 8, 2013