Our medicine cabinets contain products designed to help us get better when we’re sick and stay healthy. But sometimes those same medications and supplements can cause serious injury — and even death — when used incorrectly or by someone who shouldn’t be taking them.
Supplements, over-the-counter (OTC) medications, and prescription drugs can all contribute to poisoning at home. Here’s what you need to know to protect yourself and your family.
What is poisoning?
Poisoning is actually the leading cause of injury death in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Drug overdoses, both of pharmaceutical drugs and illegal drugs, cause the vast majority of those poisoning deaths.
You might think that the medicines you have at home are safe. However, any medication or supplement when taken in excess can cause poisoning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines a poison as “any substance, including medications, that is harmful to your body if too much is eaten, inhaled, injected, or absorbed through the skin.”
You don’t need to be addicted to drugs to suffer a drug overdose. Poisoning overdoses are often accidental and can also happen to young children. In fact, poisoning is also the leading cause of childhood injury. Every day, more than 300 children go to the emergency room — and two dice — because of poisoning, according to the CDC.
To prevent poisoning at home and to keep your family safe, follow these tips.
Store your medications safely
An unlocked medicine cabinet or nightstand drawer isn’t a safe place for your medicines. If you have young children at home, keep medicines in a locked container or cabinet that they can’t open or reach. Some 50,000 children each year go to the emergency room because they got into medicine that was left within reach, according to UpAndAway.org.
Be sure to keep medication in its original childproof container for an added layer of protection.
Read all medication labels and prescription handouts
If you are taking a prescription drug, only use the medication as directed and don’t share it with other people.
You need to be careful with OTC medications too. Follow label directions carefully, and don’t assume that a medication that’s safe for adults is also safe for children. Read all warnings and dosing instructions related to age. If you’re unsure if an OTC medication is safe for your child, check with their pediatrician first.
Your local pharmacist is always able to help answer any medication questions.
Use the proper medication measuring tools
When using liquid medications, always use the measuring tool that comes with your medicine. If you lose or misplace it, ask your pharmacist for a medication measuring cup or syringe. Never use a spoon to measure liquid medicines. Spoons aren’t accurate and can lead to taking too much medicine yourself or giving someone else, like a child, too much medicine.
Watch your language around children
Never call medications candy to help encourage your child to take it. This can confuse young children and make them more likely to want to get more even when it isn’t needed.
Dispose of medications you don’t need
Don’t hold on to unused or expired medicines and supplements. Instead, dispose of them safely by mixing them in a bag with coffee grounds or kitty litter and throwing them in the trash. Use a sealable bag to avoid the mixture leaking into your trash. (For opioid pain patches, follow the disposal directions.)
You can also drop off unused pharmaceuticals at pharmacies that participate in drug take-back programs. Another option is taking them to a DEA National Drug Take-Back Event at local pharmacies or other community locations. These usually occur in October and April. You can find information on this annual event at TakeBackDay.DEA.gov.
If you suspect someone in your family has been poisoned, but they’re awake and alert, call the National Capital Poison Center (NCPC) at 1- 800-222-1222. The service is free and confidential and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Program the number into your cell phone so it’s handy. You can also get expert help from the NCPC at webPOISONCONTROL.org.
If you suspect someone in your family has been poisoned, and has collapsed, has a seizure, isn’t breathing, or can’t be awakened, call 911 instead. This is an emergency and requires immediate help.