How to Protect Kids From Household Poisons

Expert advice to keep your child safe, and what to do in an emergency

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Of the more than 2 million calls to U.S. poison control centers in 2017, 45 percent concerned kids 6 and younger, according to the latest data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC).

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That’s no surprise, says Carl Baum, Ph.D, a professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at the Yale School of Medicine. Toddlers can get around on their own starting around age 1, and they develop enough finger dexterity to grasp all kinds of household items.

That increases the risk that they'll ingest potentially harmful things around the house. “The vast majority of exposures we see are kids picking up small objects and putting them in their mouth,” Baum says.

Here are the most dangerous household poisons for youngsters younger than 6, and what you should do to keep little ones safe. (Older kids are at a somewhat lower risk, but parents should heed these tips as well.)

Alcohol-Based Products

Alcoholic drinks that are left out can tempt little ones. But household products that contain ethanol, including some hand sanitizers, mouthwash, and perfumes or colognes, are a more likely source of alcohol exposure for young children.

In fact, cosmetics and other personal-care products were the most common exposures reported to poison control centers for children younger than 6 in 2017.

Some surprising products, such as vanilla extract, are also alcohol-based.

The amount that will make a child sick depends on the concentration of the alcohol and the size of the child, but just 2 ounces of wine can result in a dangerous level of alcohol in the blood of a 25-pound toddler. Alcohol can cause vomiting, drowsiness, confusion, and in severe cases, respiratory arrest and death.

Protect and prevent: Keep alcoholic beverages and any other product that contains alcohol completely out of the reach of children. You might assume that a kitchen or bathroom counter is a safe spot, but it’s not. Even very young children can use a chair to climb up on counters.

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Household Cleaning Products

Household cleaning products, such as bleach, drain declogger, and glass sprays, on the whole accounted for 11 percent of poison control center calls for children younger than 6 in 2017. Though it depends on the particular substance, these often cause vomiting and abdominal pain if ingested.

Protect and prevent: Store them up high and out of reach of children. Always keep cleaning products in their original bottles; a different container may not have the same safety features, such as an on/off nozzle (which won’t stop older children but may foil younger kids).

Also consider opting for greener products, such as those that carry the Environmental Protection Agency's Safer Choice logo. EPA scientists evaluate these products for possible health and environmental hazards.

Opioids and Other Dangerous Drugs

The accidental ingestion of prescription medication, including sedatives, stimulants, and most common, opioids such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (Percocet), and buprenorphine (Suboxone), sends about 60,000 kids younger than 5 to emergency rooms in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Over-the-counter medications and supplements can also be hazardous for young children. Adult-strength iron supplements can cause bloody diarrhea or vomiting in less than an hour. Just one high dose of acetaminophen (the amount depends on your child's height, weight, and age) can cause liver damage.

Protect and prevent: Store medications where kids can’t reach them, preferably locked away. Make sure medicine containers, including those that are child-resistant, are always completely closed after use.

Keep medications in their original containers when you travel; daily pill organizers aren’t necessarily child-resistant. Ask visitors to secure medications they bring to your home.

Get rid of unused or expired sedatives, stimulants, and opioids properly by bringing them to a pharmacy or hospital, or by mixing them with coffee grounds or cat litter in a sealed plastic bag and throwing them away. Flush unused opioids down the toilet.

Button Batteries

The swallowing of foreign objects accounted for only about 6 percent of all poison control calls concerning children under 6 in 2017. But in that group of objects, tiny button batteries, which are often used in hearing aids, watches, and even some toys, are especially worrisome. According to the nonprofit Safe Kids Worldwide, more than 2,800 kids per year in the U.S. are treated in ERs after swallowing these nickel-sized batteries.

“Button batteries can be deadly to anybody that swallows them,” says Bruce Ruck, Pharm.D., managing director of the New Jersey Poison Information and Education System. They can become lodged in a child’s throat, posing a choking hazard. And if the chemicals inside the batteries leak out, they can damage the esophagus, causing bleeding and other tissue injury.

Children who have a button battery stuck in their esophagus may lose their appetite or vomit, or experience nausea, coughing, wheezing, or fever.

Protect and prevent: Know which household products contain button batteries. Make sure that they can be opened only with a screwdriver or that they're similarly secure. (Duct tape can help but may not completely deter a curious kid.)

Store any unused batteries where kids can't access them, and dispose of used batteries right away. Don’t put new batteries into a product in front of children. If your child uses a hearing aid, purchase one that has a child-resistant battery compartment.

Laundry Detergent Pods

Young children may try to eat these small, brightly colored pods, which are filled with highly concentrated laundry detergent. “To a toddler, they look like candy,” Baum says.

The soft, plastic-coated pods can cause vomiting and breathing problems if swallowed and chemical burns if toddlers get the fluid inside in their eyes.

Calls to poison centers about these pods seem to be on the decline since more rigorous safety standards went into effect at the end of 2015. (There were 10,883 reports of young children exposed to the pods in 2017 and 9,445 exposures in 2018.)

But they remain a significant problem, experts say. By the end of February of this year, U.S. poison centers had already received 1,326 calls about them.

Protect and prevent: Consumer Reports recommends that families with children younger than 6 avoid laundry pods altogether, and they're not included in our list of recommended detergents. If you do use them, keep pod containers closed and store them up high and out of reach of kids.

Electronic Cigarettes

The liquid nicotine in electronic cigarettes can cause nausea and vomiting in children who swallow it, according to the AAPCC.

And the number of young kids getting their hands on e-cigs is on the rise. A 2016 study in Pediatrics found that in January 2012 there were 14 reports of children younger than 6 exposed to e-cigarettes. In April 2015 the number was 223.

The biggest threat, according to Ruck, is the containers of liquid nicotine used to refill e-cigs.

Parents may inadvertently leave used containers—which are often not child-resistant—where kids can get them even though they may still contain residual nicotine fluid. And some of the flavors, such as bubble gum, appeal to kids.

Protect and prevent: Keep electronic cigarettes and liquid nicotine locked away and out of reach of kids. Never refill e-cigs in front of them. Dispose of empty nicotine containers in a receptacle that children can't access.

If Your Child Ingests a Household Poison

If you know or suspect that a child (or adult) has consumed a possible poison, call 911 immediately if he or she has collapsed, is unconscious, can't be awakened, or is bleeding, Ruck says.

Do the same if you think opioids or other powerful prescription drugs or button batteries are involved, even if there are no visible symptoms. (In the case of medication, grab the drug container and any remaining pills, if possible, to show first responders.)

If you're unsure what your child has been exposed to and see no symptoms, call your local poison control center at 800-222-1222 (available 24 hours per day). Staff there can help you figure out whether your situation is an emergency and guide you through treating your child. Or try a new online tool.

Don't attempt to induce vomiting or to neutralize a poison using vinegar or another substance unless a poison control staff member instructs you to do so.

Tips to Handle a Medical Emergency

Health emergencies can happen at any time. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Lauren Friedman explains how you can be best prepared.

Catherine Roberts

As a science journalist, my goal is to empower consumers to make informed decisions about health products, practices, and treatments. I aim to investigate what works, what doesn't, and what may be causing actual harm when it comes to people's health. As a civilian, my passions include science fiction, running, Queens, and my cat. Follow me on Twitter: @catharob