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Young children explore the world by putting things in their mouth, and even curious older children don't always know what's unsafe. That explains why more than 1 million children under age 6 are victims of accidental poisoning each year.
Keep your child safe by identifying (and locking up) toxic materials and knowing what to do if she swallows, inhales, or touches something poisonous.
Identify poisons in each room
Conduct a room-by-room inventory of toxic products, listing anything that's out in the open as well as inside drawers, cupboards, and closets. Then make sure all poisons are clearly labeled and locked out of a child's reach.
Experts recommend paying particular attention to the kitchen and bathroom. It's not always obvious what's hazardous and what's not, and poisonous substances may not be in plain sight.
If you're not sure whether a product is poisonous, check the label or call the American Association of Poison Control Centers' hotline at (800) 222-1222.
Here are some of the hazardous substances commonly ingested by children under age 6:
- Cleaning products, including drain cleaner, oven cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner, bleach, dishwasher detergent, liquid laundry packets, furniture polish, and rust remover
- Prescription drugs such as heart and blood pressure medications, antidepressants, sleeping pills, diabetes medications, pain medications, and time-release medications
- Cosmetics and personal care products, such as mouthwash, nail products, hair remover
- Baby oil or similar products (which can be dangerous if your child gets them in his lungs)
- Acetaminophen or ibuprofen, which are poisonous when taken in large doses
- Aspirin, which can lead to Reye's syndrome, a rare brain and liver disease that can be fatal
- Cough and cold medicines
- Vitamins, especially iron supplements
- Button batteries
- Household plants, especially philodendron and holly berries
- Paint thinner, paint remover, kerosene, lighter fluid, antifreeze, and windshield washer fluid
- Pesticides and pest control products, such as roach and ant baits, rodent poison, and insect repellent
- Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol
Protect your child from dangerous substances
It's never too early to start poison-proofing your house – even before your baby is born. You'd be surprised how fast a baby can learn to get into cupboards and open child-resistant caps.
Lock up all medicines and dangerous substances. Secure all cupboards that contain poisons – even those that seem out of reach – with safety latches or locks. Put away medicines and vitamins after you use them.
Poison experts have heard how many young children have dragged a chair over to a kitchen counter, climbed onto the counter or refrigerator, and opened a cupboard near the ceiling. Your child may be able to do something like this before you know it.
Get rid of expired medications. In general, it's not a good idea to flush expired medicine down the toilet because it can contaminate groundwater and end up in the drinking water supply. However, a few drugs are so potentially dangerous to children that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends flushing them rather than leaving them in the trash.
Read the label of the medicine to find out whether it should be flushed or tossed. You can also check with your pharmacy or local waste management company to find out how to dispose of it properly. Some communities have programs for taking back expired medication.
If you have to put medicine in the trash, first remove any personal information from the empty containers and then place them in a sealed trash bag with kitty litter or coffee grounds as a deterrent.
Don't rely on child-resistant containers. Child-resistant doesn't mean childproof. The cap is intended to delay a child who is trying to open a container long enough for an adult to discover what's going on and intervene. Remember: No bottle top is ever so secure that a child can't find some way to get it off.
"It's not unusual for a 2-year-old, left alone for 30 minutes, to break down the best devices of the manufacturer," says pediatrician Mark Widome.
Keep medicines, pesticides, and detergents in their original containers. Never put poisonous or toxic products in unlabeled containers or containers that were once used for food. There have been too many cases of poisonings when a toxic liquid like antifreeze was mistaken for apple juice.
Move purses, luggage, and grocery bags away from prying hands. A tube of brightly hued lipstick or a bottle of coated pills can look like candy to a young child. Store your purse on a high shelf, and unpack anything potentially dangerous from your grocery bag before you do anything else.
Keep batteries out of reach. Don't let children play with batteries or electronic devices, such as remote controls. Button batteries can get stuck in a child's throat or intestines and release dangerous chemicals, causing severe injuries or even death.
Never refer to medicine as candy. Even if you're trying to get a reluctant child to take flavored acetaminophen or antibiotic syrup, don't make your child think it's a treat.
Children learn by imitation, so take medicine when your baby isn't watching. To be safe, teach your child never to eat anything without asking an adult first.
Read labels before buying household products, and use the least toxic ones you can find. Among the household products generally considered less hazardous are nonchlorine bleach, vinegar, borax, and beeswax. Unclog drains with compressed air or baking soda and vinegar instead of corrosive liquids.
Always keep an eye on your child. Even the most thorough childproofing is no substitute for supervision. Be extra vigilant when you have guests or visit a friend's or relative's house, especially if it hasn't been childproofed.
Prevent carbon monoxide and lead poisoning
Install carbon monoxide alarms throughout your home. Carbon monoxide gas is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. Every year, thousands of people are poisoned by carbon monoxide that leaks from stoves, space heaters, ovens, gas vents, furnaces, and fireplaces.
Make sure all your gas appliances are in safe working order, and install a carbon monoxide alarm outside every sleeping area and on every floor of your home.
Beware of lead contamination. If your house was built before 1978, has old pipes, or is located near a highway, your child is at higher risk of being exposed to lead. Consider having your home tested for lead contamination.
For more information, see our article on lead poisoning or contact the National Lead Information Center at (800) 424-LEAD (5323).
What to do if your child may have swallowed something dangerous
If your child is unconscious, not breathing, or having a seizure, call 911 immediately.
Otherwise, call the American Association of Poison Control Centers' national emergency hotline: (800) 222-1222. Post the number now by your phone now, before an emergency occurs. (Use our handy emergency contact worksheet.) Even if your child seems okay after swallowing something potentially poisonous, call the hotline to find out if your child needs medical attention.
The poison control center can help you identify the poison your child ingested and walk you through what to do. Local lines are staffed by registered pharmacists, nurses, and doctors 24 hours a day, and these professionals are trained to respond to poisoning crisis calls and answer questions about household poisons.
Do not try to make your child vomit. If your child still has some of the poisonous item in his mouth, remove it or have him spit it out.
Do not keep syrup of ipecac on hand in case of poisoning. It hasn't been shown to be effective in preventing poisoning and can potentially be misused.
The poison control association's website also has information about poison-proofing your home.