Teens, Toddlers at Highest Risk for Poisoning From Medications

A recent report from the organization Safe Kids Worldwide analyzed calls to poison control centers across the United States for medicine-related poisoning among children and teenagers. The report revealed that teens aged 15 to 19 caused the second-highest number of calls and that teenagers have the highest number of serious outcomes from medicine-related poisoning. Overall, children ages 1 and 2 were the most vulnerable to poisoning from medications. Calls concerning children of these ages comprised a majority—53 percent—of all calls to nationwide poison centers. However, teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19 were six times more likely to have serious outcomes from medicine poisoning than children 4 and under. When very young children overdose on medicine or take medicine that is not meant for them, it is clearly an accident. However, many people may not realize that teens are also vulnerable to accidental medicine poisoning. Although teens typically have a much better understanding of what they are ingesting, they may still choose to take medications in a way that can prove dangerous. Many misuse medications or “self-medicate,” either by taking medications that were not prescribed for them or taking more than the prescribed dosage of a medication that does belong to them.

Both OTC, Prescription Medications

Result in Poisonings Approximately 10,000 emergency room visits each year are the result of teenagers self-medicating and overdosing on over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Many teens do not fully appreciate the risks of prescription drugs, and this is even more the case for OTC medications, whose ready availability equals harmlessness in the eyes of many people. Prescription drugs also cause a significant number of calls to poison control centers each year. Among teenagers, drugs that are prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and other mental health issues are responsible for the largest number of serious medical issues in poisoning situations. This report highlights the importance of keeping medications out of the reach of young children and of teaching older kids and young adults the importance of paying careful attention to the instructions on prescription medications. While teenagers are perfectly capable of reading and understanding the directions for OTC and prescription medications, many do not understand the risks of disregarding those directions or mistakenly believe that higher doses will work faster or better than the prescribed dose. This report excluded cases in which children or teenagers deliberately abused OTC or prescription medications. Nevertheless, the results of this report definitely have implications for the nationwide teen prescription drug abuse epidemic. First, they underline the fact that teenagers are often so under-informed about medication risks that they may take too much of a medication or use medications that do not belong to them even when they do not have any intention of misusing or abusing a drug. In addition to poisoning, unintentional misuse can have serious consequences, such as chemical dependence. Furthermore, those teens who continue to mistakenly believe that medications are harmless are much more likely to deliberately abuse them at a later stage.

Medication-Related Problems May Be Decreasing

However, the data from Safe Kids Worldwide also support recent evidence that efforts to control child and teen access to potentially dangerous medications is having an effect. The 2014 report from the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study found that teen misuse and abuse of prescription drugs dropped slightly in 2014 from 2013, and has dropped notably since reaching an all-time peak in 2009. Similarly, this new report found that medicine-related calls to poison centers among teenagers decreased by 2.8 percent between the most recent years for which data is available—2012 to 2013. Whether adults are being more vigilant about monitoring medication use or teens are becoming more educated about the potential risks of medications—or both— accidental and deliberate misuse of OTC and prescription drugs among teens hopefully will continue to decrease.

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