Children at risk from grandparents' medications, new study

Children at risk from grandparents' medications, new study
Children at risk from grandparents' medications, new study  Photo: iStock

Grandparents aren't taking appropriate precautions with their medications when caring for their grandkids finds a new survey - and it's placing little ones at risk of accidental medication-related poisoning.

According to the US National Poll on Healthy Aging, over 80 per cent of grandparents keep their medication in the same place as usual when looking after grandchildren and 72 per cent leave pills in their bag or purse when visiting them at home.

As part of the poll, conducted by U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation in conjunction with not-for-profit AARP and Michigan Medicine, more than 2,000 US adults aged 50 - 80 were asked questions about medication storage and childcare.

Results showed that when kids come to visit, 84 per cent of grandparents don't change where they store their medications - in cupboards or cabinets (61 per cent), counter tops and tables (18 per cent), purses or bags (7 per cent) or other locations (15 per cent). And only 5 per cent said they kept their medications in a locked cupboard in their own homes.

"Prescription medicines, and even over-the-counter medicines and supplements, can harm children and teens who find them in grandma's purse or on grandpa's kitchen table," says poll director Preeti Malani. "Meanwhile, opioid painkillers and sleep medicines can be diverted for recreational use by teens. No matter how old your grandchildren are, you need to think about medication safety."

According to Dr Alison Bryant of AARP, grandparents can take simple steps to ensure their little ones are protected. "Don't leave medications in your purse or on a kitchen counter—it's best to keep them locked up. It's also a good idea to go through your medications every few months and safely discard any that are expired or no longer needed."  

The researchers also found that 29 per cent of adults transfer prescription medicines from childproof containers to other kinds of containers.

"If you put your pills into day-of-the-week pill sorters so you can remember whether you took your medicine each day, that's great – but keep that sorter out of the reach of little ones," Malani says. "Make sure you explain to them, and their parents or older siblings, that it's important to stay away from your medicines – that those pills are for you and you alone."


While the survey is based on US data, a 2018 study published in Clinical Toxicology shows that the issue is just as concerning closer to home. The research looked at accidental pharmacological poisonings in NSW in three settings: from the poisons information centre, (PIC), emergency room presentations and hospital admission from 2007 -2013.

Results indicated that approximately 27 children under 5 are unintentionally exposed to pharmaceutical medicines every day in New South Wales. Of these, 250 children are admitted to hospital each year. Most calls to the PIC were related to "non-opioid analgesics" (25 per cent), and "topical agents" (18 per cent). "Benzodiazepines", "other and unspecified antidepressants", "uncategorised antihypertensives", and "4-aminophenol derivatives" accounted for over one-third of all admissions. 

According to KidSafe, most accidental poisonings occur in children under five, with toddlers at the greatest risk. "At these ages they are curious, however can't always judge the hazards and are unable to read or understand warnings," they note, adding that children also like to imitate what others do, "which can include behaviours like taking medications." And the majority of child poisoning injuries are due to poisoning by pharmaceutical substances.

KidSafe advises the following safety tips for medications:

  • Remember 'child resistant' does not mean 'child proof'
  • Some medicines may need to be kept in the refrigerator – use a small lockable container to enable these medicines to be stored safely.
  • Do not refer to medications as 'lollies' - this can be very confusing for children.
  • Avoid taking medications when children are around.
  • Dispose of unwanted and out of date medicines. 
  • Always keep the Poisons Information Centre phone number 13 11 26 near your phone/in your mobile phone.