Person adding medicine to their cabinet

As you well know, kids can get into anything—and will.

That’s why, if you have children at home, your bathroom, purse and lower kitchen cabinets are the last places to keep prescription drugs, over-the-counter medicines and even vitamins or eye drops.

“Anything can be dangerous in the wrong hands and in the wrong situations,” says Connie Zajicek, MD, child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist with Memorial Hermann Behavioral Health Services’ Psychiatric Response Team.

Medicines are the leading cause of child poisoning globally, with one child seen every 10 minutes in emergency rooms, according to the nonprofit Safe Kids Worldwide.

Protect your kids with these tips from Dr. Zajicek and Mahevish Virani , MD, Memorial Hermann Medical Group Sugar Land Primary Care.

Go High and Keep Count

“It’s very important you keep medicine out of sight and reach of children even if you take them every day,” Dr. Virani says. Keep child safety caps on at all times.

Any narcotics should be locked up, and make sure all medicine is accounted for.

When you travel, store drugs and vitamins in a separate pouch inaccessible to your kids, unlike your purse.

Discard All Expired Drugs

Check all expiration dates for vitamins and drugs at least every six months and pitch expired ones to avoid interactions, Dr. Virani says. Finish antibiotics as prescribed.

Don’t flush drugs in the toilet, where they can harm drinking water. CVS Pharmacies offers safe disposal kiosks. CVS locations that do not have such kiosks offer DisposeRX at no charge to patients filling an opioid prescription for the first time. The powder is mixed with drugs and water to make a biodegradable gel that’s safe to dispose of at home.

They're Not So Innocent

Just because OTC meds and vitamins are easy to buy doesn’t mean they’re harmless.

“Don’t refer to medicine as candy to get children to take them,” Dr. Virani says. “It sends the wrong message.” Your child also may find Gummy Bear vitamins and pink allergy meds equally irresistible.

No harm, no foul? It pays to keep aware of   the latest social media viral videos if you have a teen or preteen, Dr. Zajicek says. Boiling chicken in cough medicine is one of the latest “challenges,” leading to dangerous fumes and the consumption of raw chicken in concentrated cough syrup.   

“’The sleepy chicken’ is dangerous on so many levels,” she says.  “The dose of the active ingredients, including doxylamine and dextromethorphan, have not been measured.”

An overdose can be akin to that for illegal drugs or cause dangerous symptoms like sedation and respiratory depression, among others. 

Not just drugs can endanger. Singing greeting cards, talking books and car fobs yield dangers. More than 3,500 children swallow lithium button batteries, reports U.S. Poison Control. Not only can babies choke but their saliva triggers an electrical current and chemicals that can burn their throats.

Anything that’s an aerosol—including spray paint, pesticides, furniture polish and hairspray—can be huffed for a high or accidentally spritzed into little one’s eyes, Dr. Zajicek says.

Seek Care for Symptoms of an Overdose

Stimulants may cause restlessness, agitation, chest pain, difficulty breathing or rapid breathing and heartbeats, Dr. Virani says. Sedation, confusion, dizziness, impaired judgment and hallucinations are other signs of an overdose.

Severe cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures and nausea may be signs of taking too much of a drug or having eaten small batteries, bleach, magnets, cleaners or OTC drugs.

If you suspect your child has taken something bad, call Poison Help promptly at 800-222-1222 and head to the ER.

That phone number should be stored in all of your family’s phones, shared with all caregivers and posted visibly at home, Dr. Virani says.

“Specialists at poison control centers provide free, confidential and expert medical advice 24 hours a day,” she says. “They can answer questions about how to give or take medicine and help with poison emergencies.”

Talk Safety from an Early Age               

Teach kids that only parents, caregivers, school nurses and other parent-approved adults should touch medicine.

“You can teach even preschoolers to never take medicine themselves, just as they shouldn’t talk to strangers, touch a hot stove or run around a pool,” says Dr. Zajicek. “Let them know that taking too much of anything can make them sick, just like too many cookies make tummies hurt.”

Children mimic you, so if they have a headache, they may mistakenly take a fistful of acetaminophen (Tylenol®), she says. “They may be unaware of how dangerous acetaminophen can be. It can shut down your liver for example, which can be deadly.”  

“If a child takes ADHD or antidepressant medications, you should be the one who is giving it to them.”

Also, alert schools of any allergies or health conditions that influence how much of an over-the-counter painkiller your child can take safely, Dr. Virani says.

Don't Delay the Talk

You might want to have your first talk about addiction when youngsters head to school. Sesame Street tackled the topic in 2019, Dr. Zajicek says.

“Don’t assume even in elementary school your children won’t know about drug misuse if you don’t bring it up,” she says. “Kids probably have been exposed to drug and alcohol misuse on TV, if not in a schoolyard.”

The best way to approach early information is to ask questions. “Say, ‘Have you seen this? Let’s talk about it.’” she says.

Start with small nuggets of information. “Let them know it’s dangerous to take anything not given to you by a trusted adult,” she says. “Elementary and middle schoolers can understand that drugs can cause people to make bad decisions, or that even if a medicine is safe for you, others might have allergies to it.”

“Good” Kids can get in to Trouble

 You can—and should—graduate to a more sophisticated discussion with teens, Dr. Zajicek says.

One in 10 adolescents reports trading, selling or giving away medication that had been prescribed to them, reports the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Nearly 108,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s important to have an open conversation about potential harmful effects, such as respiratory depression and death,” Dr. Zajicek says.

You also need to set rules, with consequences, such as leaving a party if alcohol or drugs are used, and not riding with a driver who has taken drugs or alcohol, Dr. Virani says.

If you’re concerned about your teen or preteen’s substance use, wait until they’re relaxed to address it. “Be direct, but nonconfrontational,” Dr. Zajicek says. “They’re more likely to have an open conversation when you’re not looking them directly in the eyes. An ideal time is when you’re on a walk or in the car.”

Know the Signs of Anxiety and Depression

“Anxiety or depression looks different in kids,” Dr. Zajicek says. “Irritability and a short fuse are the most common signs of depression. Physical complaints, such as stomachache and headaches, are symptoms of anxiety.”

You also may see changes in sleep, weight, appetite, energy, school performance, socializing and physical appearance, she says. “Anxious kids often are the quiet ones, not the troublemakers.”

If you’re not sure what to do, “err on the side of getting help from their pediatrician, school counselor or therapist,” Dr. Zajicek says. “There’s good treatment available for children.”

This number has flashed across many TV screens of late, but it’s a resource worth keeping in mind for tips: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 800-662-HELP.

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