Child-resistant packaging doesn’t mean child-proof

Published in Medicinewise Living

Date published: About this date

Health and medicines information in this article may have changed since the date published. This information does not replace advice from a health professional.

The introduction of child-resistant packaging in the 1970s and 80s caused a substantial drop in the rate of accidental poisonings in young children. However, every year hundreds of Australian children under 5 years of age are hospitalised because of accidental poisoning — and medicines are a common culprit.

Child-resistant packaging only makes it harder for most children to open a medicine. Keeping medicines out of reach and sight of children and knowing how to give medicines correctly to children are also essential to prevent accidental poisoning.

Why does accidental poisoning from medicines still happen in children?

In infants less than 12-months-old, medicines given incorrectly by parents and caregivers is the most common reason for accidental poisoning.

As they begin to crawl and then walk, children tend to explore the world around them by handling objects and often placing them in their mouths. They also like to copy the adults around them. As a result, young children, especially those aged 1 to 3, are at a high risk of accidental poisoning.

Many poisonings in children under 5 occur in the home, often when medicines are about to be given or are not in their normal place — for example, after a medicine has just been used and the adult becomes distracted or leaves the room for a moment. Handbags belonging to parents, grandparents and visitors can also be a treasure trove to young children and could contain medicines that may be accidentally chewed or swallowed.

Some poisonings occur outside the home when visiting friends and relatives, or when the family’s usual routine has been changed, such as while holidaying or moving house. Storing medicines or other chemicals in containers other than those they came in is another way that accidental poisoning can happen in children, as well as teenagers and adults.

Which medicines are dangerous to children?

All medicines are potentially harmful to children, including over-the-counter and complementary medicines, such as herbs and vitamins.

Simple pain relievers like paracetamol, cold and flu medicines, and antihistamines are some of the most frequent causes of hospitalisation from accidental poisoning in children under 5.

Medicines that are more likely to cause serious problems for children when taken accidentally include:

  • medicines for heart conditions
  • iron supplements
  • antidepressants
  • sedatives and medicines for sleep problems
  • medicines for psychotic conditions
  • migraine medicines
  • antiepileptic medicines.

What can I do to prevent accidental poisoning from medicines?

While it might seem impossible to keep your eye on an active and inquisitive toddler all the time, it is possible to stop them getting hold of medicines.

Keep all medicines out of sight and reach

Store medicines at least 1.5 metres (4 ft 11 inches) above floor level, preferably in a cupboard secured with a child-proof latch. Simply putting them in a high place where they can still be seen is not enough. Children, especially 3- and 4-year-olds, are very resourceful when it comes to finding ways of climbing.

If medicines need to be stored in a fridge, keep them out of sight in a plastic container with a tightly fitting lid. Place the container at the back of the fridge, but not next to the cooling element where they might freeze. Avoid storing medicines in the fridge door as they may be more easily seen and accessed by children.

If you tend to keep medicines in a prominent place as a reminder of when to take or give them, try using a note instead, or setting an alarm using our free MedicineList+ smartphone app.

Know how to give medicines safely

Young children’s bodies are small, so even small dosing mistakes with medicines can cause them harm. Working out the right dose and using an accurate measuring device is important to ensure children are given medicines safely and effectively.

Don’t let children see you taking medicines

Avoid taking medicines in front of young children, because they like to copy ‘big people’. If you need to keep medicines in a handbag, especially when visiting homes where there are young children, put it in a safe place and ensure children don’t see you removing your medicines when you need them.

Replace medicines safely after use

Put medicines back in a safe place immediately after you take or give them to children. Ensure you replace child-resistant lids properly, otherwise they’re useless. But remember that child-resistant doesn’t mean child-proof.

Be aware that medicines that come in blister packs or in bottles with screw-top lids can be just as dangerous to children as medicines with child-resistant packaging.

Dispose of expired or unused medicines

Take any unused and out-of-date medicines to any pharmacy for free and safe disposal. Do not place them in your household garbage or flush them down the sink or toilet. Disposing medicines this way can harm the environment, and children and pets may easily get into bins.

Thankfully, most young children recover from poisonings with no lasting ill-effects, and deaths are very rare. However, if you suspect that a child has taken a medicine not intended for them, immediately ring the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26, or take them to the nearest hospital emergency department.

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