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Vol. IV No. 29   ·   6 April 2001 


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Keeping kids safe from accidental poisonings

My three-year-old is constantly getting into places she shouldn't. We have tried to be diligent about keeping harmful items out of her reach, but I am wondering if there is anything else we can do.

Crawling and walking are welcome stages in a child's development. However, the same advances that allow a child to become more mobile also signal parents to step up their vigilance when it comes to protecting their child from being accidentally poisoned at home.

Common household poisons run the gamut from ammonia and aspirin to household plants, turpentine, and vitamins. Although many cleaners are clearly marked "Harmful if swallowed," children see only the colorful packaging, and the multivitamin a parent takes each morning with breakfast may look like candy to a child's eyes.

According to Sean Palfrey, M.D., a physician in the Department of Pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, and professor of pediatrics and public health at Boston University School of Medicine, most of the accidental poisonings he sees occur in children between the ages of one and four.

"Poisonings are often the result of a child's mobility and curiosity," he says. "Children learn about the world around them by putting things into their mouths."

Accidental poisonings fall into three main categories: household supplies such as cleaners; common medications, such as acetaminophen, iron, multivitamins, or a grandparent's pills; and garage and cellar contents, such as kerosene and gasoline.

To protect kids, Palfrey says, the first thing new parents can do is baby-proof their home. "Always be prepared for your child to do more than you expect," he says. "Never underestimate the curiosity and persistence of a toddler."

Parents should move potentially hazardous items out of the reach of small hands: cleaners, medications, and poisons should go on a high shelf or in a locked cabinet. Simple childproof locks can be used to secure low cabinets in kitchens and bathrooms. Plants that could be hazardous if leaves or berries are swallowed should be moved to a higher location, or removed from the home. Parents should also consistently discourage children from putting things in their mouth.

In addition, "Never leave children alone, especially in the bathroom or kitchen," Palfrey says. "If you have opened a container, make certain you put the cap on tightly, and don't put hazardous items in used food or beverage containers."

Palfrey says warning signs that a child has ingested something poisonous include the sudden onset of vomiting or complaints of stomach pain. Other warning signs include a child who is sleepy, poorly responsive, or not breathing well.

"The first thing a parent should do is remain calm and then call your local Poison Control Center or your child's pediatrician," Palfrey says. "If you think you know what your child has ingested, have it close by so that you can tell the center or the pediatrician. They will use that information to help you concerning what to do next."

Palfrey discourages parents from administering syrup of ipecac unless directed to, because with some poisons -- such as cleaning fluids -- "We don't want them coming back up," he says.

When it comes to preventing accidental poisonings, Palfrey says, "the bottom line is, be ever-vigilant and expect the unexpected."

"Health Matters" is written in cooperation with staff members of Boston Medical Center. For more information on poison prevention or other health matters, call 617-638-6767.


6 April 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations