By Rhonda Mann, Tufts Medical Center Staff
Each year more than one million children under the age of six are exposed to poison – and most of the time it happens right in their own home. While some of the culprits may be well known, others can be surprising, according to experts.
“The typical age we see here are two to four year olds who get into things and simply don’t know any better,” says Lynne Karlson, MD, Chief of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center. “And more often than not, what they are getting in to is a prescription drug bottle.”
Even though prescription medications should have child-proof caps, they are not always fastened properly after each use. In fact in 2014, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, nine percent of poisonings in children under six were due to the ingestion of pain medication that was left within reach. The website points out that poisoning is now the leading cause of injury death, surpassing motor vehicle traffic deaths, due to drug poisoning deaths.
“It’s essential to keep all medicines in proper containers and out of the reach of children,” says Dr. Karlson. “This includes over-the-counter medicines like Tylenol and Motrin and even vitamins.”
Karlson says other culprits can be found under the sink. Drain cleaners have long been associated with child poisonings as are bleach and windshield washer fluid. More recently, laundry and dishwasher pods have been the subject of national attention.
“These pods have received a lot of press because they are a significant problem. They are attractively packaged, colorful and squishy – perfect to catch the eye of an unsuspecting toddler,” she says.
Another newer concern – button cell batteries. These are found in watches and in flameless, battery operated tea lights.
“They can be very dangerous to swallow because if they get lodged anywhere, they can burn a hole through the child’s intestine. The chemicals are that corrosive,” warns Dr. Karlson. She suggests that parents make sure all batteries are properly held in place with screws and are not left around where youngsters can get them.
In New England, some experts are still seeing cases of lead poisoning – a result of lead paint. Dr. Karlson says anyone who lives in a home that was built prior to 1977 should make sure the home has been de-leaded.
“We screen regularly now for lead poisoning so we catch it early, but a renovation to an old Victorian could put paint chips in places they are easy to get. Even if the child doesn’t eat it, lead can appear in the dust spread by opening and closing windows,” she says.
Other items that potentially cause harm include cosmetics and toiletries such as perfume, hair dye, hair spray and nail polish. Certain plants, too, can cause harm if swallowed, including rhododendron, English Ivy, Lily of the Valley and holiday arrangements such as holly and mistletoe.
“The moment you suspect a problem, call poison control and they will walk you through the proper steps,” says Dr. Karlson, adding that parents should not induce vomiting as some poisons can do more harm if they come back up. “That’s why it’s so important to have the poison control number handy. Have it on your refrigerator, bulletin board or in your phone. Every second may count.”