Could your child tell the difference? You'd be surprised how many potentially poisonous products look good enough to eat. Here's how to protect your family.

candy or medicine?
Credit: Alex Cao

Household Dangers

It can happen so quickly. Julie Hyde, of Ashland, Oregon, was cooking dinner when her 18-month-old daughter, Ally, slipped out of the kitchen, pulled a chair up to the bathroom counter, and drank the open bottle of cough syrup that her dad had just used. Molly Stephan, a 3-year-old from Miami, found a plastic ant-bait tube underneath her bed, filled it with water, and took a sip. Fortunately, both girls didn't suffer any lasting effects. However, Rex Souder, of Bellevue, Nebraska, had a much scarier experience. The 19-month-old drank a bottle of lamp oil that he found in his grandmother's china buffet. She rushed him to the local emergency room, but after two hours, he needed to be transferred to a larger hospital with pediatric specialists. Rex was turning blue -- he had aspirated some of the clear oil into his lungs and couldn't breathe. Doctors had to put him on a ventilator, and he spent 13 days in the hospital. "I had no idea that I had something so dangerous in my home," says his grandmother, Judy.

These frightening stories are just a few of the 2.4 million poison incidents -- one every 13 seconds -- that poison-control centers handle each year. Nearly half involve young children who like to climb, explore, and put anything that looks interesting into their mouth. Poisonings also occur when kids inhale toxic fumes or get caustic chemicals on their skin or in their eyes. While most poisoning cases aren't serious enough to warrant a trip to the hospital, almost 130,000 children under age 6 needed treatment and about 760 experienced potentially fatal or permanently damaging effects in 2005, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

Essential Safety Steps

Since you can't possibly watch your child every single second, it's crucial to poison-proof your home thoroughly.

sports drink bottle

Keep medications and potentially harmful substances, such as vitamins, bath oil, and perfume, locked up and out of your child's reach and sight. "Easy access for you means easy access for your kids," says Catherine Tom-Revzon, Pharm.D., clinical pharmacy manager in pediatrics at Montefiore Medical Center, in New York City. Make sure that dangerous products have child-resistant caps, but don't rely on them. Get down on your hands and knees, and look at everything from your child's point of view. Many local poison-control centers offer free "Mr. Yuk" stickers; you can put them on bottles and explain to your child what they mean.

Always read labels before giving your child medicine, and double-check the markings on dosing cups and spoons. In 2004, more than 65,000 children under age 6 were accidentally given the wrong medication or dosage, including a 3-year-old boy who died after receiving adult doses of acetaminophen for five days. If you're not sure whether a medication or dosage is safe, check with your pediatrician or pharmacist or call poison control.

Use dangerous products, such as drain opener or oven cleaner, only when your child is napping or out of the house. Be sure to close caps tightly, and lock them up when you finish using them. Wipe up any spills right away. Store all products in their original packaging, and don't transfer them into soda bottles or other containers normally used for food.

Never let your young child out of your sight when visiting friends and relatives. Grandparents may buy drugs that don't have child-resistant packaging and keep them out on bedside tables, countertops, or in handbags. "A pill holder with sections for each day of the week looks like a toy to a small child," says Dr. Tom-Revzon.

Teach your child that she should never put something in her mouth if she doesn't know what it is. Remove poisonous plants from your house and yard (for a list of toxic plants, go to Never give her sips of alcoholic beverages or leave any after-party drinks sitting out. Avoid taking pills in front of your child.

Post the poison-control number -- 800-222-1222 -- near every phone in your house. (Your call will be automatically routed to the nearest regional poison-control center.) Store the number in your cell phone, and make sure that your child's caregivers know to call poison control if your child swallows or comes in contact with anything that might be harmful.

"It's amazing how easily young children can climb and open unlocked cabinets and containers," says Kristin Wenger, poison-prevention education coordinator at Blue Ridge Poison Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Even kids who won't take a bite of broccoli or whole wheat manage to swallow all sorts of potentially toxic products they find around the house, so you can't be too careful.

The Most Dangerous Products




A single or repeated dose above the recommended amount can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and liver damage. Symptoms of liver damage, such as yellow skin and eyes, can take several days to appear.

Alcohol in drinks, perfume, aftershave, facial cleanser, antiseptics, and mouthwash

A small amount can cause intoxication, slow heart rate and breathing, low blood sugar, seizures, and coma.

Antifreeze or windshield-washer fluid containing ethylene glycol or methanol 

A small amount can cause rapid heart rate, seizures, and coma. Ethylene glycol can cause kidney damage and methanol can cause blindness. Symptoms can be delayed. 

Heart and blood-pressure medications

A small amount can cause irregular heart rhythm, low blood pressure, and coma. Some produce symptoms within 30 minutes; others can take 12 hours or more.

Caustic chemicals, such as toilet-bowl and oven cleaner, dishwasher soap, artificial-nail primer, permanent-wave solutions, hair remover

A small amount can cause burns and scarring on contact. It can also cause difficulty breathing and swallowing, organ damage, and coma.

Cough and cold medications

More than the recommended amount can raise blood pressure and heart rate, slow breathing, and cause cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, and coma.

Eyedrops and nasal sprays

A few drops can constrict blood vessels in the body and cause seizures and coma in 20 to 30 minutes.

Hydrocarbons, often in baby and bath oil, lamp oil, makeup remover, furniture polish, gasoline, lighter fluid, turpentine, and kerosene

One sip can cause fatal pneumonia if a child chokes and aspirates the substance into his lungs. Gasoline and solvents can cause breathing difficulty, seizures, and coma if inhaled.

Iron supplements or adult vitamins with iron

Swallowing a few can cause bloody vomiting and diarrhea, liver damage, and coma.

Oral diabetes medications

A small amount can cause low blood sugar, seizures, and coma. Symptoms can be delayed for 24 hours.  

Tricyclic antidepressants, such as Adapin and Elavil, which are more dangerous than SSRIs

Any amount can cause seizures and coma in a small child, sometimes within 20 to 30 minutes.

Pesticides, including lawn-weed and insect killers and indoor bug sprays and powders

One swallow can cause respiratory failure, abnormal heart rhythm, paralysis, seizures, and coma. Toxic exposure can also occur through inhalation or skin exposure.

Narcotic pain relievers, such as codeine

An adult dose can cause low blood pressure, slow heart rate, difficulty breathing, and coma in a child.

Topical anesthetics, such as first-aid or sunburn cream

Ingesting even a small amount can cause difficulty breathing, seizures, and coma.

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