Childhood poisoning may be accidental, but it can still be prevented. Because it is impossible to keep your eyes on a young child 24 hours a day, protection is vital for those times when you do take your eyes away – even for a second.
Children are most at risk
Children are, by nature, explorers. Their lives are full of new sensations which they want to find out about. This normal curiosity can sometimes lead them into danger. Unintentional poisoning is one of the greatest of these dangers, particularly for children under the age of 5.
It is important to remember that young children learn about new things by putting them in their mouths. Feeding has been their main source of pleasure and it is natural, when something new comes their way, to see what it tastes like. But if the wrong things go in, serious, even fatal, poisoning may result.
Although in most instances the poison will not kill, about 40 Australian children are hospitalised each week from unintentional poisoning.
Poisoning can occur at any time and in any place, for example your own home, while visiting relatives, holidaying, while moving and when guests are visiting.
Some dangerous items
Many everyday household items are often not thought of as dangerous.
Among the items that can cause serious harm to a young child are medicines (including over-the-counter products such as paracetamol, iron tablets, cold preparations, complementary medicines and herbal products), vitamins, alcohol, illicit drugs, many creams and ointments, cosmetics, perfumes, cleaning products, cockroach baits, garden sprays, some plants (such as rhus, asthma weed and yellow oleander), car products and cigarette butts.
Ensuring a child has no access to poisonous things is the best line of defence. Everyone can take responsibility to reduce the chances of a child being poisoned, whether children live in your home, or if they come to your home on an occasional visit. Prevention takes a few minutes and in most instances costs nothing to implement.
While medicines (both prescription and over the counter) are responsible for about 60% of poisonings in Australia, 2016 data show that household products are responsible for about 40% of toxic symptoms and hospitalisations due to exposure or ingestion.
The information is contained in a 2016 ACCC report that uses information from the NSW Poisons Information Centre from the calls they received over 12-month period.
It shows the main culprits for poisonings in the home are:
- Batteries (disc/button)
- Pool chlorine
- Oven cleaner
- Cyalume glowsticks
- Denture cleaner (mistaken for medication)
- Hair dye
- Hand sanitiser
- Dessicant (silica gel) – often found as small bags in amongst consumer packaging to absorb moisture.
- Eucalyptus oil
The report notes that about 180,000 calls are made to Poisons Information Centres across Australia, every year, and almost 2,500 children are admitted to hospital every year following poisonings.
It found that the most serious incidents related to carbon monoxide exposure from heaters and cookers, button batteries, caustic cleaners, pool chemicals, household bleaches and herbicides.
What can you do?
- Check all the rooms in the house for poisons. Don’t forget the bedroom and living room.
- Put all poisonous substances away immediately after using or buying. Don’t leave them on the bench. Most poisoning happens this way.
- If the door or phone rings when you are using a potentially harmful product, take it with you. Don’t turn your back on a child when a poisonous product is nearby.
- Put poisonous products out of reach (at least 1.5 metres off the ground), out of sight and locked away; use child resistant locks on cabinets and cupboards containing medicines, toiletries, household cleaners and garden products.
- Ask for child-resistant containers when you buy medicines and household cleaners.
- Keep the poison in its original container and store it in a different cupboard from food products. Never store poisons in old soft drink bottles or other food containers.
- Always read the labels.
- Make a distinction between medicines and other products. Don’t call medicines ‘lollies’ to encourage a child to take them.
- Take your own medicines out of sight of children.
- Keep handbags out of reach of children. Only store one day’s supply of medication in your handbag.
- Discard old medicines and poisons.
- Be aware that poisoning is more likely when household routines are disrupted, such as when you are moving house, going on holidays or having visitors.
- Check that the plants in your garden are not poisonous. Don’t plant new poisonous plants and remove or fence off established plants in areas where small children play.
Last Reviewed: 08/09/2010
1. Kreisfeld R, Harrison J. Hospital separations due to injury and poisoning 2005-06. Injury Research and Statistics Series No. 55. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2010. (AIHW Cat. No. INJCAT 131.). http://www.aihw.gov.au/publications/index.cfm/title/10715 (accessed Nov 2010).
2. NSW Poisons Information Centre. Poisons [website]. Sydney: Children's Hospital at Westmead. http://www.chw.edu.au/poisons/poisoning.htm (accessed Sep 2010).
3. Victorian Poisons Information Centre. Prevention of poisoning [website]. Melbourne: Austin Health. http://www.austin.org.au/poisons (accessed Nov 2010).
4. NSW Poisons Information Centre. Poisonous plants. Sydney: Children's Hospital at Westmead (last reviewed 24 Feb 2010). http://www.chw.edu.au/parents/factsheets/pdf/poisonous_plants.pdf (accessed Sep 2010).
5. NSW Poisons Information Centre. Poisoning prevention (last updated 12 Mar 2008). Sydney: Childrenï¿½s Hospital at Westmead. http://www.chw.edu.au/poisons/poisoning_prevention.htm (accessed Sep 2010).
6. Paediatric poisoning: epidemiology [revised 2008 Feb]. In: eTG complete. Melbourne: Therapeutic guidelines Ltd; 2010 Nov. http://online.tg.org.au/complete/ (accessed Nov 2010).
7. ACCC. ACCC poisons report. 24 March 2016
Poisoning is a common cause of hospital admissions for adults and children, and common household medicines are the leading cause of poisoning. Find out more about poisonings.
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