Measuring medicine? Drop the teaspoon

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Mary Poppins may have been good at getting kids to clean up the nursery, laugh themselves airborne and even sweep out chimneys, but her method for doling out medicine was unreliable at best, whether or not she threw in the spoonful of sugar. (“Rrrum punch, quite satisfactory.”) Pouring out liquid medications into household spoons may result in inaccurate dosing depending on spoon size, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. While the Food and Drug Administration advises consumers against using regular kitchen spoons for measuring out medication, researchers from Cornell and Georgia Tech suggest that it remains common practice.

For the study researchers recruited 195 college students, who were told to pour out one teaspoon (about 5ml) of cough and cold medicine as they would normally do at home. After they were given the bottle of medicine, they were given a range of spoons—teaspoons, (with a capacity of 5ml), tablespoons (15 ml), and a larger spoon (45 ml)—to measure it out. Each participant was given the spoons in a different order, and asked to record their confidence in the amount after each measurement.

When using the tablespoon, participants regularly poured out too little medicine, averaging 4.8ml, or 8.4% less than the amount intended. With the bigger spoon, they regularly doled out too much medicine, pouring 5.58ml on average, or 11.6% more than they intended amount. Yet, in both cases, study participants reported feeling confident in the accuracy of the measurements.

Of course, the problem with getting the measurements wrong is that it can potentially undermine a medication’s efficacy, and even in the case of missing a measurement by just a little bit, if you miss that little bit several days in a row it adds up. To avoid these problems, the authors recommend using a measuring cap, specifically calibrated dosing spoon or medicine dropper, instead of reaching into the kitchen drawer, next time you need to pour out medication.

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