How to prevent poisonings in children — and what to do if they happen

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

March 17–March 23, 2019 is National Poison Prevention Week

Every day in the United States, over 300 children under the age of 20 are seen in an emergency room because of poisoning, and two of them die. What is most heartbreaking is that poisonings are preventable — and quick action can save lives when they happen.

Poisoning prevention

Here are some tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics to prevent poisoning in children:

  • Keep medicines, cleaning and laundry products, paints and varnishes, as well as pesticides, out of sight and reach of children. If possible, lock these products away.
  • Always keep these products in their original containers, which makes it less likely that they will be ingested by accident.
  • While laundry and dishwasher detergent pods can be convenient, stick with the standard liquids and powders if there are young children in the house. The pods just look too much like candy.
  • Have safety caps for all medications, but don’t rely on them (meaning keep medications out of reach and sight).
  • Make sure you know the correct dose of any medication you give your child, and always use a medication syringe or spoon to measure it (ask your pharmacist for one if you don’t have one).
  • Get rid of any old or unused medicines or cleaning products. The less around, the better.
  • If you use e-cigarettes, only buy nicotine refills in safety containers and keep them out of sight and reach. Nicotine can be very dangerous.
  • If you have a gas, kerosene, coal, or wood-burning stove, make sure it is in good working order.
  • Have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and check them regularly to be sure they are working.
  • Know what devices in your home use button cell batteries, and keep them out of reach of children. Don’t buy children’s books or toys that have these batteries; it’s not worth the risk.
  • Make sure you know all the types of plants you have in your house or yard. If any are poisonous, either keep your child away from them, or better yet, get rid of them.

What do to should a poisoning happen, or if you think it might have

  • If the child is having any trouble breathing, is unconscious, or has what you think even might be a serious injury, call 911 right away.
  • For a swallowed poison, have the child spit out whatever isn’t swallowed. Do not use ipecac or anything else to make them vomit. If your child has any symptoms, call 911 or bring your child to a local emergency room. If your child doesn’t have symptoms, call 1-800-222-1222, the nationwide poison control center number. Have the container with you when you call, and be ready to tell the person you talk to how much your child swallowed (or your best guess).
  • For something that gets on the skin, take off any clothing and run water over the affected area for 15 minutes. While you are doing that, call the poison center.
  • If anything gets in the eyes, hold the eye open and run room-temperature water on the eyes (aim for the inner corner) for 15 minutes. Call the poison center while you do — or call 911 if a lot got into the eyes or the child is in a lot of pain — but don’t stop flushing the eyes.
  • If a child swallows a button cell battery, or puts it in his nose or ear, take him immediately and directly to an emergency room. They can do damage quickly.
  • If a child has inhaled a poison, or you think that she might have, get her out into fresh air. Call 911 if she is unconscious or having any trouble breathing.

Keep the Poison Center number in your phone and posted in your house so that it is always handy. You can and should also call the number — or your doctor — if you think your child might have gotten into something, but you aren’t sure. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

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