Medicine and Children

Misuse, Abuse of Medicines can Seriously Harm Children

There might be dangerous poisons lurking in your medicine cabinet.

Prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications, when used correctly, can cure many ills. But when they're abused, misused or left unattended, they can be deadly – especially for children.

Children are far more susceptible than adults to the effects of medicines. Their bodies and neurological systems are still developing, and even small amounts of these drugs can be difficult for them to metabolize. If you haven't thought much about what's in the medicine cabinet, it's time to take notice.

Teens, Pre-teens are Self-medicating

Research by Scholastic indicates that children begin to self-medicate as early as 11 years old. Whether to cope with stress, fit in with their peers or attempt to alleviate symptoms of an underlying condition, like ADHD, this risky behavior can lead to overdose, addiction and death.

More than 10,000 children younger than 18 end up in emergency rooms every year for self-administering and overdosing on OTC medicines, according to Scholastic.

It's a world-wide problem. The Center for Advancing Health reports:

  • Self-medication, as opposed to recreational use, is a major reason teens abuse medicines
  • 22% of U.S. teens abuse painkillers and 14% of them do not inform their parents
  • 14% to 28% of U.S. teens reported they sold, loaned or gave away their medication
  • Patterns established in youth often follow people into adulthood

Partnership for Drug-free Kids, is that parents still have more influence over their child than their friends, media and celebrities. The organization's Medicine Abuse Project, a "five-year initiative to prevent a half-million teens from abusing prescription and OTC drugs by 2017," encourages parents to safeguard their medicines and talk to their families about medicine abuse.

Some Children – and Parents – Just Don't Know Better

As parents, our primary goal is keeping our children safe and teaching them life skills so they can function on their own one day. It's a big job, and educating children about medicine should be part of the task.

Medications are the leading cause of child poisoning, according to One out of every 150 2-year-olds is sent to an emergency room for an unintentional overdose, from mistakes in dosing by caregivers or children finding and ingesting medication, according to NSC research.

Children and teens often share and take medicines without understanding the dangers. According to Scholastic, only 54% of younger teens know over-the-counter medicine can be dangerous. They mistakenly think OTC drugs are safer because you don't need a doctor's prescription to get them.

Younger children are curious and quick, and they often put things in their mouth that they shouldn't. According to, children under age 5 are at greatest risk for poisoning by medication.

Come up with a Plan

Have you ever considered creating a family medicine plan?

A few simple steps can ensure your children won't end up needing urgent care for an overdose. It starts with inspecting your home for medicine hazards, then having a conversation with your kids about the dangers of medicine. It's never too early for that talk.

It's also important to:

  • Treat prescription and OTC medicines with the same level of caution
  • Read the "drug facts" label; uses, warnings, directions, active ingredients and other information is listed here
  • Consider diaper rash cream, vitamins, eye drops and other products as medicine
  • Always use the dosing device that comes with the medicine; never kitchen spoons
  • Never take multiple medicines with the same active ingredient unless directed by a physician
  • Store all medicines away and out of sight of children, and make sure child-proof caps are locked
  • Never tell children medicine is candy
  • Never let your child take medicine on their own
  • Make sure visitors lock and put away suitcases and purses containing medications
  • Safely dispose of leftover and unwanted medications
  • Program the Poison Help line into your phone: (800) 222-1222

The Food and Drug Administration has created a series of videos on drug safety in the home to help parents make medicine safety a priority.

Safeguard Your Medicine

Every year, almost 60,000 children visit the emergency room for unintentional drug poisonings. Keep medicines up and out of sight.

Listen to This Message

Other Poisons at Home

In addition to medicines, the average home contains many other toxins that are so dangerous children never should never be exposed to them. NSC offers a lot more information about:

Safeguard Your Medicine

Every year, almost 60,000 children visit the emergency room for unintentional drug poisonings. When family and friends visit, ask them to keep purses, bags or coats that have medicines in them up and out of sight when they are in your home.