70,000 U.S. kids overdose each year — accidentally — on everyday household meds

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Some 100,000 kids end up in U.S. emergency rooms each year because they’ve accidentally been poisoned. No, they’re not all raiding the cupboard full of cleaning supplies. Close to 70% of those visits are from are overdoses of everyday over-the-counter drugs or prescription medications, according to a recent study by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The leading culprit, which sends an estimated 7,226 U.S. kids to hospital each year:  acetaminophen, or Tylenol.

Acetaminophen is one of the most common painkillers in the world. (Outside the U.S. it’s also known by the name paracetamol). And acetaminophen is extremely safe — as long as you take the right dose, which is not, in fact, all that high. Please believe the bottle when it tells you there’s a maximum daily recommended dosage. That goes double for children, who, obviously, tend to be smaller than adults, so they may be able to handle less of the drug. Even though most kids who go to hospital with medication overdoses are youngsters aged 1 – 5 who snuck into the medicine cabinet without their parents noticing, CDC stats show that parents actually supervise their child’s poisoning in about 18% of cases. The most common medication error, taken from overdoses among all legal drugs, is simply giving too much of the medication you intended to administer. It’s unusual but by no means unheard of for someone to die after taking just a few more acetaminophen pills than the max recommended dosage that’s stated on the package. Other people also overdose by following the directions correctly for two different medication brands — say a painkiller pill and a liquid cough syrup — without realizing that both meds contain the same active ingredient.

For the record, I use acetaminophen regularly — at least once every three months, I would say. It’s my painkiller of choice, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. But just because it’s appropriate for everyday aches and pains does not mean it’s still harmless when taken in large quantities. Keep your medicine stash out of children’s reach and make sure you’re familiar with a drug’s dosing recommendations before you start giving out pills, even common ones like painkillers and cough medicine. One final note for adults: Acetaminophen also shouldn’t be taken with alcohol, since both drugs put demands on your liver. That means it’s not a great idea to start popping Tylenols when you get home from the bar, hoping to ward off a hangover. Stick with a glass of water or two instead.