All the child-proof caps and cabinet locks in the world didn’t help when 2-year-old Lainey Gibson Havenga found one of her grandpa’s pills on the floor.
She popped it in her mouth, thinking it was candy.
Twelve hours and one emergency department visit later, Lainey was fine. But for her mother, Jill Gibson, the day proved to be a scary, heart-stopping experience. And it brought home the challenges of medication safety for little ones.
“You can never be too careful,” said Gibson, a pediatric nurse practitioner and clinical risk manager at Spectrum Health.
The incident illustrates one of the most common risks of accidental poisonings for young children, said Jennifer Hoekstra, injury prevention coordinator at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
Nationwide, a child is seen in an emergency room every eight minutes for medicine poisoning. In 2011, that added up to 67,700 cases. Nearly all those visits occurred because a child got access to a medication during a moment alone.
A visit to someone else’s house—including grandparents and friends without kids—creates special challenges.
“When you aren’t used to having little ones around, you have to make sure you pay attention and keep (medicines) out of sight and out of mind,” Hoekstra said.
A quick trip to the ER
Lainey, who is now 4, managed to find the pill on the floor on a Sunday afternoon two years ago. They were about to go to lunch with Gibson’s dad, who is in his 80s.
Medication safety tips
Put all medicines up and away and out of sight, including your own. Make sure that all medicines and vitamins are stored out of reach and out of sight of children. In three out of four emergency room visits for medicine poisoning, the child got into medicine belonging to a parent or grandparent.
Consider places where kids get into medicine. Kids get into medication in all sorts of places, like in purses and nightstands. In 67 percent of emergency room visits for medicine poisoning, the medicine was left within reach of a child, such as in a purse, on a counter or dresser or on the ground. Have a designated safe place for bags or purses when visitors come to your home.
Consider products you might not think about as medicines. Most parents store medicine up and away—or at least the products they consider to be medicine. They may not think about products such as diaper rash remedies, vitamins or eye drops as medicine, but they actually are and need to be stored safely.
Use the dosing device that comes with the medicine. Proper dosing is important, particularly for young children. Kitchen spoons aren’t all the same, and a teaspoon or tablespoon used for cooking won’t measure the same amount as the dosing device. Use the dosing device that comes with the medicine to prevent dosing errors.
Put the toll-free Poison Help number into your home and cell phone: 1.800.222.1222. You can also put the number on your refrigerator or another place in your home where the babysitters and caregivers can see it. And remember, the poison help number is not just for emergencies, you can call with questions about how to take or give medicine.
Source: Jennifer Hoekstra, injury prevention coordinator at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital
Lainey told her mom she ate a piece of candy, but it didn’t taste good.
Gibson saw a bit of white powder residue on her daughter’s lips.
“I thought that was very strange,” she said. “I did a sweep of her mouth and found half a pill.”
Familiar with her dad’s medications, she suspected immediately that it could be Coreg—a beta blocker used to treat hypertension. The drug lowers blood pressure and can cause a low heart rate.
“I knew this was potentially very serious,” she said.
Gibson immediately drove her daughter to the emergency department at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. She brought a list of her dad’s medications and the remainder of the pill.
Gibson and her partner talked and sang songs to keep the toddler awake.
“When you go to sleep, your heart rate naturally drops and your blood pressure naturally drops,” she said. “I didn’t want her that relaxed.”
At the hospital, monitors showed Lainey’s heart rate and blood pressure were normal. She stayed there for 12 hours of monitoring, until doctors were sure the drug cleared her system.
For Lainey, the hospital visit was fun and games. She painted, watched movies and kept busy with activities.
“I think it was more traumatic for us,” Gibson said. “She did very well.”
On her desk at work, she keeps a wooden heart painted by her daughter that day.
“It kind of reminds me how fast things can happen,” she said. “And how quickly life can change.”
Kids vs. child-proof containers
Hoekstra advises parents not to put too much trust in child safety caps to keep kids safe.
She cited a Today show feature that brings that message home. Four-year-old children were given an assortment of pill bottles and containers—all cleaned and disinfected—and asked if they could open them. The kids popped the tops off in seconds.
Even a parent who dutifully keeps medications and cleaners out of reach and in locked cupboards can be caught off guard, Hoekstra added. They don’t think about items that might be in a purse, suitcase or jacket pocket lying in easy reach of a child.
“So often, it’s the bag left on the floor in the kitchen or living room,” she said.
That’s why she advises parents to have a designated area in their home to place purses and guests’ bags. It could be a closet shelf, hooks in the mudroom or a back bedroom—any place that will keep the bag out of reach and out of sight of curious kids.
Some parents also don’t recognize that everyday substances can pose serious risk to children, Hoekstra added. They keep prescription medications safely out of reach, but don’t pay the same attention to vitamins and diaper cream.
However, the four most common medicines accessed by children younger than 4 are ibuprofen, multivitamins, and diaper care and rash products, according to Safe Kids Worldwide.
Keep the national Poison Help number—1.800.222.1222—posted in a handy place, such as a refrigerator or pantry door, Hoekstra suggests. The service helps in emergencies and provides information about medication doses and ways to prevent accidental poisonings.
And if a parent suspects a child may have eaten something harmful, Gibson tells them to act quickly—call Poison Help or go to the ER.
“Time is critically important,” she said. “Getting help is crucial.”