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Prevent Poisoning and Throw Away the Ipecac
Young children are naturally curious.
This is good because it helps them grow and develop; but it can be very dangerous when they find poisonous substances around the house. Young children like to open cabinets and drawers to see what's inside. When they see something interesting, they will reach, crawl and climb to get it. Especially between 1 and 3 years of age, children tend to put things in their mouths. And they can swallow poisons quickly and quietly, while you're on the telephone, in the bathroom, taking a nap, or making dinner.

Every year in the United States, approximately 1.2 million children under 6 years of age swallow poisonous substances.
Over 90% of poisonings occur at home, often from medicines (e.g., aspirin, acetaminophen, vitamin and iron pills, sleeping pills) and household products (e.g., moth balls, furniture polish, drain cleaner, insect or rat poison, paint thinner, antifreeze, and weed killer). Thankfully, death from poisoning is rare. In fact, poisoning deaths have dropped dramatically—from 500 per year in the 1940s to 25 per year in 1997—largely as a result of child-resistant caps for medications and hazardous chemicals, safer medications, and parents following home safety recommendations. Learn what you can do to keep your child safe.

The Old vs. the New Recommendations
For the past 20 years or so, doctors have urged parents of young children to keep on-hand a 1-oz. bottle of syrup of ipecac, to be used in case of poisoning. It was recommended that parents use it only if they were advised to do so by their doctor or poison control center. Ipecac, made from root of the Brazilian ipecacuanha plant, causes vomiting. It was recommended on the assumption that if there is something poisonous in the stomach, you should get it out as soon as possible.

However, more recent research has proven this assumption wrong. Ipecac has not been found to reliably clear poisons from children's stomachs. Ipecac can sometimes have dangerous side-effects such as persistent vomiting and lethargy. When poisoning is caused by certain household products, vomiting can make the child's condition worse. Ipecac has sometimes been given to children when it was not recommended. It has also been abused by adults and adolescents with eating disorders, leading to heart problems and death.

For all of these reasons, the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is: throw out the ipecac. Discard it safely by emptying the contents down the sink or toilet, rinsing out and disposing of the bottle.

We now know that the most effective approach to childhood poisoning is:
1. Take all the necessary steps at home to prevent poisoning.
2. In case of poisoning, get prompt medical advice and treatment from poison control and emergency medical services.

Preventing Poisoning at Home
  • Keep medications and other hazardous products in their original containers with the original label. Never put them in food or drink containers.
  • Make sure medications have child-resistant caps. These safety caps are not “child proofâ€�—children can figure out how to get into them, but they're harder to get into and much safer. After you use the medicine, secure the cap well.
  • Store medications and household products locked up, out of sight, and out of reach of children. Look for high cabinets to store dangerous items, and use safety latches on cabinets and drawers wherever they are stored. Don't leave loose pills, cigarettes or alcohol on the bedside table, dresser or kitchen counter; don't leave cleaning products unlocked in the cabinet under the kitchen sink; and don't leave automobile fluids and garden chemicals accessible in the garage or yard.
  • Read the labels of medicines and household products before using them, and use them only as directed.
  • Don't take medicine in front of small children. They might try to imitate you and get into the medicines.
  • Never call medicine candy. It makes children want to take the medicine when they shouldn't.
  • Periodically check your home for old, expired medicines and flush them down the toilet.
  • Make sure grandparents, other relatives, friends, and child care providers also store medications safely. Elderly people often take several medications and they may leave off the caps because of difficulty opening them.
  • Be prepared for an emergency.
  • Next to your telephone, post the universal telephone number for Poison Control in the United States: (800) 222-1212.

In Case of Poisoning
If your child swallows a poison, try to stay calm.

If your child is conscious and alert, call Poison Control at the above telephone number. Be prepared to tell them:
  • the name of the medication or household product
  • the dose or amount
  • the time your child took it
  • your child's age and weight
  • any medical conditions your child has or other medications your child is taking any symptoms your child has
  • your location and how long it takes to reach a hospital

Poison Control will tell you whether there is any danger and what to do. Follow their instructions closely.

If your child is unconscious, has stopped breathing or is having seizures (convulsions), call 911 for your local Emergency Medical Services. They will arrive quickly to provide emergency care and transportation to the hospital.

Hospital emergency departments use a very effective treatment—activated charcoal solution—to detoxify poisons in a child's stomach. This is not generally recommended for home use because it can be difficult for children to drink and is usually given through a nasogastric tube down the nose into the stomach.

Thankfully, most children survive poisoning episodes. But you must do everything you can to prevent poisoning and be prepared for emergencies. For more information, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics at www.aap.org and the National Safe Kids Campaign at www.safekids.org.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education