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The Danger Lurking in Your Medicine Cabinet

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Guest blogger Ronda Kaysen: Recently, I came home with a new bottle of vitamins for my 3-year-old. He was so excited to see the new package that he grabbed the bottle -- and skillfully opened the childproof top. I was stunned. The child's only 3! If he can get into his vitamins without a hitch, what else can he get into?!

medicine cabinet

I opened my medicine cabinet and took a peek at the loot inside. There was a giant bottle of chewable Tylenol -- enough to wipe out his liver in one fell swoop. There was a bottle of liquid Benadryl. And then there were the grownup medications: Anbesol, aspirin, Advil, more Tylenol, Prevacid, vitamins and my iron supplements, which are tiny and toxic in high doses.

Everything had childproof lids and was out of his reach -- so long as he didn't climb up onto the bathroom sink. Suddenly, I realized that my medicine cabinet, which had seemed so organized, sparse and secure just moments ago, was a trip to the emergency room waiting to happen.

We all know to lock up the Drano and the ammonia under the kitchen sink. But the medicine cabinet can be just as dangerous, and childproof caps are no match for a determined tot.

Accidental poisonings of kids are surprisingly common. One out every 180 2-year-olds visits an emergency room because of poisoning from a medication, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2004 and 2005, about 71,000 children turned up in the ER due to medication poisoning. More than 80 percent of those cases occurred because an unsupervised child found medicine he shouldn't have.

In a case that would send chills down any mother's spine, a Florida mom was charged in July with manslaughter after her 4-year-old son died from an overdose of prescription sleep medication. The mom, 44-year-old Raisa Bernabe, told detectives that she had given her 4-year-old son, Nicholas Odze, Lunesta to help him sleep better. The child's autopsy found that he had indeed died from an overdose of the sleeping pill. But he had also taken ibuprofen, oxycodone and oxymorphone, according to the medical examiner's report.

Granted, Bernabe's case is unusual in that she allegedly admitted to giving her toddler medicine intended for an adult. But accidental poisonings are often at the hand of well-meaning adults. Kids often end up overdosing on Tylenol and other medications because different caregivers -- mom, followed by grandma, followed by the babysitter -- dole out doses of painkillers and fever reducers too closely together, not realizing that the child just had a dose.

"Kids are dying who shouldn't," says Dr. Charles Shubin, director of pediatrics at Mercy FamilyCare, a division of the Family Health Centers of Baltimore. "Anything can be harmful, even fatal, in a big enough dose or inappropriate use." Simply keeping medicines out of your kid's reach is not enough, say experts. All medicines should be kept under lock and key.

Spencer Aronfeld, a lawyer familiar with the Odze case, also says that "the manufacturers and pharmacies could go to greater lengths in educating the public" about the risks associated with medications.

There are things parents can do to make the bathroom a safer place for kids. Here are tips from the experts:

Clean it out. Go through your medicine cabinet and get rid of expired medications, samples you don't need and pills you no longer use. Rather than flush unwanted drugs down the toilet or down the drain (which pollutes the water system), put them in the trash -- but make sure they're disposed of securely, so that a child can't get his hands on them.

Lock it up. Kids can climb and figure out how to outsmart childproof containers. Get a locked box (preferably one with a combination lock) and keep all your medicines -- including vitamins -- there. "People should store their medication like they'd store their firearms in their house," says Aronfeld.

Set a good example. Kids learn from watching, and if they see you taking pills, they'll want to emulate what you do. Be clear that medicine is something you take for illnesses and pains, and that you take these things in limited doses. "If they're seeing you taking pills every day, they're going to think that that's what you do," says drug-and-alcohol counselor Rebecca Janes, author of "Generation RX: Kids on Pills, a Parent's Guide". "That's how we learn.It's by imitating the grownups."

Choose your words. Children's medicine is designed to taste good so kids will want to take it. Avoid calling their vitamins or fever reducers "candy" so they don't confuse the two. Otherwise, they might like the flavor -- and, given the option, eat an entire bottle. But if you call medicine what it is, and explain that even though it tastes good, it's not candy, you can help them understand that they must take these substances in limited doses.

Keep track of dosages. If your child is sick or taking medicine, make sure every caregiver he encounters during the day knows how much medicine to give him and at what times, so there is no risk of double-dosing. Keep a chart and have every caregiver sign off on the time they administered the last dose.

Ultimately, we're responsible for our children's safety, and we need to realize that the medications lying around the house -- even the seemingly innocuous ones -- can harm our kids if consumed in large enough doses. "It's our job to make sure they don't get into something that'll harm them," says Shubin. "It really is the parent's responsibility to provide for the child's safety."

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