Every year in Australia over 3500 children are admitted to hospital as a result of accidental poisoning, largely due to taking medicines kept in the home; paracetamol and ibuprofen are the main culprits. Alarmingly these emergency admissions are on the rise and do not always relate to an inquisitive toddler finding a packet of pills; a significant number of cases are also down to parents mistakenly giving their children the incorrect dose of medication. Here we consider how you can keep your children safe from medication overdoses through their correct storage and use.

Store your medications safely

One of the best ways to keep your home safe for your children is to store medications appropriately. Although child safety caps and blister packs make it harder for children to access medications, they are no guarantee that they won’t. For this reason it’s vital that medications are stored out of sight and reach to protect your children. It isn’t sufficient to keep them on the top shelf – as after all children love to climb and explore – a child resistant cabinet is needed, which should be a minimum of 1.5m above the ground; these can be purchased from hardware stores. If there are medications that require refrigeration, these should be kept in sealed containers towards the back of the fridge, but not by the cooling element as they could freeze. It might be handy to keep a few painkillers in your handbag, but children like nothing better than to rummage through these to see what they might find; unless you keep your handbag hidden away this isn’t a good idea.

Particular care is needed with what might be classed as controlled drugs; these medications have extra restrictions placed on them in terms of their prescription, supply and storage not just because they are addictive and have potential for abuse, but because an overdose is often fatal. Examples include opioid painkillers such as Morphine, certain sleeping pills and medications to treat anxiety such as Diazepam and Lorazepam. Numerous cases of overdose have been seen with the painkiller OxyContin, which can result in difficulty with breathing, brain damage and even death. Another similar medication is Fentanyl, which has a potency a hundred times that of Morphine, and is particularly appealing to children, as it is commonly prescribed as patches that they could easily mistake for an Elastoplast or sticker. Extra caution should also be taken with Warfarin – used to thin the blood to prevent heart attacks and strokes – as if taken this can be fatal as uncontrollable bleeding can occur with even a small cut.

These medications – along with any sharps that you might have in the home if you or one of your children has diabetes – should be stored in a secure part of your house that your children do not have access to. It is not uncommon for families to keep their most valuable possessions such as jewellery, antiques and heirlooms in a locked room for safe keeping to minimise the risk of them being taken should there be a break in. If you already do so, keep the most dangerous medications in this area also; the extra minute of your time that it takes to obtain these when you need to take a pill is well worth it to keep your children safe. Families who don’t currently have a secure area of the home for storage of precious items, should seriously consider investing in a lock for one of the rooms infrequently used to allow the most potent medications to be kept here. In doing so you will increase the security of your home and provide an opportunity for the storage of valuables; this may even potentially reduce the cost of your home insurance.

Sort through your medications

While you periodically check through your food cupboards to be sure nothing has expired, when did you last do the same for the medicines you keep in your home? As you might expect, medications lose their effectiveness with time, but some become toxic with age, so it is dangerous to keep these, as if accidentally taken it could have devastating results. Twice a year you should check the expiry date on all your medications, not just those in your cabinet, but also any you might keep in your first aid kit or travel bag. Remember that it isn’t just pills you need to check, vitamins, herbal supplements, gels and creams should also be inspected. If you find any out of date medications never flush them down the toilet, as they will enter the environment, or be tempted to throw them in the rubbish, as children or pets may find them. The safest way to dispose of these medications is to take them to the pharmacy, where they can be eliminated appropriately.

Be cautious taking your medications

When you take medications be careful not to do so in front of your children; young children often go through a phase of copying others, which can extend to trying to take pills. Equally don’t call your medication sweets, as this can be confusing and they may mistake bright tablets or capsules for sweets. When taking your pills out of the bottle or pack check that none accidentally fall on the floor – where your kids could easily spot them – so dispense them over a plate to reduce the chance of this happening.

Determining the correct dose

Although you would logically expect that children’s medication doses would be dependent on their age, typically they are determined by weight. Added to this is the fact that dosage requirements vary widely from one medication to another, so parents need to be particularly cautious, especially as the packages that they come in can appear quite alike. It is therefore vital that you accurately take your child’s weight before giving them any medication; guesswork is too risky, as even a small error can be dangerous in small bodies. One of the simplest ways to weigh young children is to step on the scales holding them then subtract your own weight to obtain theirs. Referring to the instruction leaflet will provide guidance on the appropriate dose, though if your child is unusually big or small for their age it is advisable to seek guidance from your family doctor or pharmacist for advice on dosage. The other step to take when giving your child medication is to keep a note of exactly what dose was given at what time and making others involved in their care aware of this system to prevent the next dose being given too soon.

If the worst happens

It’s every parent’s nightmare that their child accidentally takes some medication, but should this happen – or you think this might be the case – contact the Poisons Information Centre straight away for information and advice. Their number is 13 11 26 and is open around the clock every day of the week. Until you have spoken to an advisor don’t give your child anything to eat or drink, or encourage them to vomit, as in some instances this can make matters worse. However, if your child shows signs of becoming unwell dial 000 immediately.