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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Prevent Accidental Poisonings!

September 12, 2013

By Henry H. Bernstein D.O.

Did you know that poisonings are one of the leading causes of injury and death in the United States? Each year, about 2 million exposures to poisonous agents are reported. A majority of these accidental poisonings involve children, so it is important to remember the message of Poison Prevention Week (an annual event in March): Children act fast … so do poisons!

Also, don't forget the national toll-free number for Poison Control Centers: 1-800-222-1222.

Safety Starts at Home

Most poisonings occur in the home and involve medications or household items commonly found in all of our homes. If someone using such a product gets distracted by a ringing doorbell or phone, for example, it takes only a few seconds for a young child to reach the item and eat or drink it. Children are at highest risk of accidental poisonings because they are naturally curious; they are attracted to the colors, scents, and labels of products, and frequently put objects in their mouths as a way of learning about and exploring the world around them. Children also imitate adults; they see you using something around the house and try to be like you. However, they cannot read or understand warning labels, so they use adult products in dangerous ways.

Close supervision and proper, secure storage of all poisons are critical to the safety of all children. In addition to obvious poisons such as cleaning solutions and antifreeze, remember that many common items found in all of our homes can be equally dangerous when used improperly, including medicines, vitamins, nutritional supplements and personal-care products such as skin cream, cosmetics and cologne.

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Common Culprits

Some commonly used medicines are so dangerous that even very small amounts such as one or two pills, or a teaspoon of liquid, can kill a small child. Check to see if any of these potential killers are in your home.

  • Benzocaine — found in teething gels and skin creams
  • Beta-blockers — used to treat high blood pressure and heart problems; examples include atenolol, labetalol, propranolol
  • Camphor — found in cold preparations, deep heating rubs
  • Clonidine — used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, high blood pressure
  • Iron —nutritional supplement
  • Lindane — used to treat scabies and lice
  • Methyl salicylate or oil of wintergreen — found in deep-heating rubs
  • Oxymetazoline — found in nose sprays and eye drops
  • Sulfonylureas — blood-sugar-lowering medicines for type 2 diabetes
  • Theophylline — used to treat breathing problems
  • Tricyclic antidepressants — used to treat depression; examples include amitriptyline, desipramine, imipramine, nortriptyline

In order to best be prepared for any accidental poisoning, be sure you:

  • Post the national toll-free number for Poison Control Centers next to every telephone in your house ((800) 222-1222). Also post the telephone numbers of your doctor and local emergency room.


  • Make sure all caregivers know where to find these emergency numbers and supplies.

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Rules To Ensure Safety

Poisonings can be prevented. Follow these rules to help prevent poisonings:

  • Never leave young children unattended. Remember that it only takes a second for a child to be poisoned.
  • While at other people's houses, watch children extra carefully and assume the house is not poison-proofed. Many poisonings involve prescription drugs belonging to someone the child does not live with, most often grandparents.
  • Never call medicine "candy." Avoid taking any medicine in front of children.
  • Never store dangerous products in containers from which people eat or drink, as these may be mistaken for food and ingested.
  • Use child-resistant locks on all cabinets and doors in your home that hold chemicals and medications.
  • Read and carefully follow directions before using household chemicals or medicines.
  • Remember that child-resistant containers are not childproof. Store all chemicals (for example, cleaning products, cosmetics, personal-care items, pesticides, antifreeze and windshield washer fluid) and all medications (including vitamins and nutritional supplements) out of the reach and sight of children.
  • Keep purses and diaper bags out of reach of children.
  • Store household products and medicines in their original containers, which often contain first-aid information.
  • Some common household and yard plants can be poisonous if eaten. Identify any that may be in or around your home, and remove them.
  • Teach your children not to eat leaves, berries, mushrooms or plants that they find outside.

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Henry H. Bernstein, D.O. is a Senior Lecturer in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition, he is chief of General Academic Pediatrics at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth and Professor of Pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. He is the former associate chief of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital Boston.

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