Thousands of children accidentally ingest prescription drugs every year. And according to Safe Kids Worldwide, medication is the leading cause of poisoning in kids—leading to the death of a child every 12 days. Yet few people take the precautions that could protect youngsters from such drug overdoses.

A recent nationally representative survey of 1,006 American adults by Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs found that only 2 in 10 who have dangerous medications—such as opioid pain pills, stimulants used to treat ADHD, and sedatives—lock them up.

More on Children's Safety

That could help explain why nearly 60,000 kids under the age of 5 accidentally swallow dangerous drugs every year and wind up in emergency rooms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is National Poison Prevention Week, a time to focus on the dangers of accidental drug ingestion by kids, which medications are the riskiest, and the best ways to protect youngsters.

How Drug Poisonings Occur

Children may consume pills or liquid medicine they find around the house, left out on kitchen countertops or on a bedside table to be used later, says Dan Budnitz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the CDC's Medication Safety Program.

This occurs when parents either fail to store medications safely or assume that child-safety caps and devices will deter kids from getting into them, he notes.

Parents may also underestimate the harm that ingesting even a single pill can cause in youngsters. “For certain long-acting opioids, for instance, one pill can be a fatal dose for a child," Budnitz says. 

According to Budnitz, opioid-containing pills such as hydrocodone (Vicodin and generic), oxycodone (Percocet and generic), and buprenorphine (Suboxone and generic) top the list of the drugs most likely to be accidentally ingested. They're followed by anti-anxiety drugs such as clonazepam (Klonopin and generic) and lorazepam (Ativan and generic). 

These drugs can lead to unconsciousness or seizures in children, or even cause them to stop breathing. And research published in the journal Pediatrics earlier this month found that the number of children admitted to hospitals for opioid overdoses—some from methadone—nearly doubled between 2004 and 2015, climbing from close to 800 in 2004 to about 1,500 in 2015. 

But too much of some over-the-counter medications can also be hazardous and lead to drug overdoses. Acetaminophen (in Tylenol and hundreds of other products) is the most common accidentally ingested OTC drug. It can cause liver damage or liver failure when taken in doses that are too high.

Keeping Kids Safe

  • Treat all medications—including OTC drugs—like other potentially dangerous household substances and lock them up or store them out of the sight and reach of children, all the time. 
  • Keep drugs in their original packaging to reduce the likelihood of dosing errors, and put them away right after each use. The CDC's Up and Away initiative recommends that consumers never leave any pills or medicine bottles on tables, nightstands, or countertops, or in purses, bags, or coat pockets. (Remind guests to do the same.)
  • Explain to children that you or another trusted adult have to be the ones to give them medicine. And never tell children that their medication, even if it's OTC, is “candy.”
  • Keep all dietary supplements well out of reach of young hands as well. A recent study in the Journal of Medical Toxicology reported an increase in harm from exposure to supplements, with the vast majority of such accidents occurring in children under 6 years of age.
  • If you are giving your child medication, always follow dosing instructions and use a medication spoon or syringe, not a kitchen spoon, for liquid medicines. 
  • Dispose of old or unneeded medications properly. You can get more advice from Consumer Reports on the right way to get rid of drugs
  • Program the Poison Help number (800-222-1222) into your phone and post it prominently at home.

Don’t Rely on Child Safety Caps, Either

Child-resistant caps on medicine bottles have been around since the 1970s, but child-resistant does not mean childproof.

“Child-resistant caps don’t work unless adults use them properly by completely reclosing them immediately after each and every use,” says Maribeth Lovegrove, M.P.H., an epidemiologist in the CDC’s Medication Safety Program. “When the child-resistant cap is not completely closed, we’ve found that many young children can easily access the bottle contents.” 

Instead of relying exclusively on safety caps, Lovegrove says that innovative safety packaging such as “blister packs”—where each dose of medicine is individually sealed—may help prevent the unsupervised ingestion of certain high-risk medicines and accidental drug overdoses.

Not every pharmacy can fill prescriptions in blister packs, but it is worth asking. Note that CVS and PillPack, an online pharmacy service based in New Hampshire, can fill and ship prescriptions in personalized, individualized plastic packs.

How Flow Restrictors Can Help

To combat acetaminophen overdoses, drugmakers are adding a small plastic safety device called a flow restrictor to the opening of some liquid medicine bottles.

This limits the amount of fluid a user can pour out, even when the cap is off and the bottle is turned upside down, shaken, or squeezed.

In 2013 Consumer Reports tested flow restrictors on more than 30 infant and children’s liquid acetaminophen bottles. Our tests confirmed that this feature made it more difficult for children to pour out and drink liquid medicine.

Research from the CDC showed something similar. With a flow restrictor in place and without any safety cap, only 6 percent of kids could completely empty the bottle by the end of a 10-minute test. But without a flow restrictor and with an improperly locked safety cap, 82 percent of kids could empty a bottle in under 2 minutes.

In 2015 the Food and Drug Administration recommended—but didn't require—that containers of liquid acetaminophen for children younger than age 12 have flow restrictors. The agency will revisit that suggestion at some point this year. 

If You Suspect a Problem

If your child is unconscious, having a seizure, or appears to not be breathing, call 911 immediately. Do the same if he or she seems overly sleepy, confused, or has difficulty breathing.

(If your child is awake and alert, call the American Association of Poison Control Centers help line, at 800-222-1222. The CDC recommends making this call even if you're unsure whether he or she has actually ingested a medication or supplement.)

Then check your child's mouth and remove any pills. Get the container and any remaining medication so that emergency personnel can identify it and give the best treatment or antidote.

If you think an opioid pain pill may be the culprit, emergency responders can administer the opioid reversal drug naloxone. Your child will still need to go to an emergency room for further evaluation and possible treatment.