5 Poisoning Hazards for Kids You May Be Overlooking

You're likely aware of common poison dangers for kids, but some poisoning hazards may surprise you. Here's what to know, and how to keep your child safe.
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In 2015 (the latest data available), the American Association of Poison Control Centers handled about 2.2 million cases of poisonings. Just about half involved children ages six and under. You already know to keep cleaning supplies, medications, and pesticides out of your child's reach, but there may be some poisoning hazards you're overlooking. Make sure these threats aren't lurking in your home.

1. Detergent pods

You've heard about this one. However, even with all the warnings, laundry detergent pods are still a serious poisoning risk for children. Last year, 11,528 children ages 5 and younger were exposed to laundry pods. This year, through February 28, poison centers have already received reports of 1,558 exposures. Laundry and detergent pods are enticing to kids because they tend to be small and brightly colored, which can make them look like candy or a tasty drink. If a child eats a laundry pod, the effects can include vomiting, lethargy, coughing, breathing difficulties, corneal abrasions (scratches to the eyes) and, in rare cases, coma, says Rick Spiller, Director of the Central Ohio Poison Center.

Poison prevention: Ditch the pods. "We prefer homes with small children use liquid or powder detergents (in the bottle or box) until the children have grown out of the exploratory phase (once they reach school age)," Spiller says. If you don't want to give up the convenience of pods, he advises keeping them up high, out of reach of children, and in child-resistant containers.

2. E-cigarette devices and liquid nicotine

E-cigarette devices and liquid nicotine can be very dangerous to children. Nicotine is generally unpalatable, so a child usually won't drink much; however, the liquid nicotine used in e-cigarette devices is so highly concentrated that even a small amount, like a sip, can cause potential harm, says Matt Noble, M.D., an emergency physician and medical toxicology fellow at Oregon Health & Science University, in Portland. If a child ingests liquid nicotine, the side effects may include increased heart rate, muscle twitching, vomiting and sweating. If the liquid gets on the skin, it can cause a burning sensation. However, what happens depends on how much liquid the child ingests (and its concentration). Dr. Noble recently published a report in the journal Annals of Emergency Medicine about a case in which a child nearly died from exposure to liquid nicotine.

Poison prevention: Don't use e-cigarettes around children, and always keep the e-cigarette devices and liquids out of your child's eyesight and reach. The best place for them is in a locked box. Also, dispose of the liquid and e-cigarette device components properly (read the instructions on the label), so your child doesn't gain access to it.

3. Essential oils

Essential oils, like lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus and tea tree oil, are natural products derived from plants, so surely they're safe, right? Not always. A report by the Tennessee Poison Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center revealed that the number of essential oil exposures doubled between 2011 and 2015. Eighty percent of the cases involved children. Essential oil exposures can happen if the child drinks the oil or when a parent uses too much of it or uses it in an inappropriate way (for instance, using an oil undiluted). Depending on the exposure, essential oils can cause rashes, vomiting, stomach pain, breathing and nervous system difficulties, confusion, muscle weakness, seizures, and even coma. And if your child tries to swallow the oil but chokes, it can get into his lungs (aspiration) and cause pneumonia.

Poison prevention: Handle essential oils like medications, using them only for their intended purpose. Store them in a locked cabinet or out of sight and reach of your child. Use only the amount stated on its label/guide.

If you have any questions or concerns about whether an essential oil is safe to use on or around your child, Dr. Noble says to contact your pediatrician or poison control center.

4. Pet medications

Your pet's medications deserve the same attention as medications made for humans. According to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics, from January 1, 1999 through December 31, 2013, one poison control center in Ohio received more than 1,400 calls (an average of 95 calls each year) about children being exposed to pet medications. Eighty-eight percent of the calls involved kids under age 5. Most kids got hold of the medication when they were exploring the home and found it. However, 23 percent of exposures occurred while the parent was trying to give the medication to a pet. This can happen if your pet spits out the medicine somewhere and your child finds and eats it, or your child samples the pet's food or treat that has medication in it, says Kristin Roberts, MS, M.P.H., co-author of the Pediatrics study and research project coordinator in the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. Kids who play with a pet that's being treated with a medicated cream or lotion can also be poisoned if they get the medicine on their hands and then put their hands in their mouths. The dangers of these exposures depend on the medication. "Some are fairly benign with only minimal risk while others can be quite serious (for instance, coma from anticonvulsant medication)," Roberts says.

Poison prevention: Store pet medications in an area where children can't see or reach them, and keep the medications away from human medications. When administering meds to your pet, "make sure your children are in another room before giving your pet the medicine/food mix and make sure the pet has finished all the food (and hasn't spit it out somewhere) before your child is allowed back in the room," Roberts says. Apply topicals when your child is in another room (or after your child's bedtime), and allow the fur to dry before your child touches the pet.

5. Cosmetics and personal care products

Cosmetics and personal care products are some of the most common causes of poisoning among young children.[4] Remember, the products we use for hygiene and appearance contain tons of chemicals. It's hard to say what can happen if a child ingests one of these products because it depends on the product and its chemical makeup, Dr. Noble says. For instance, if your child inhales talcum baby powder, it can cause breathing problems and lung damage.[5] Any more than a taste of hand sanitizer can put them at risk for alcohol poisoning. And swallowing lotion can cause diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.

Poison prevention: Treat these like any other chemical. Keep them out of your child's reach. Be mindful of what your child does in the bathroom (especially if she's old enough to go in alone). And keep your purse in an area that isn't accessible to your child.

If you suspect your child has been exposed to these or other poisons, call the national toll-free Poison Help hotline at 1-800-222-1222 immediately for further instructions. Program the number into your phone (and have your child's grandparents and other caregivers do the same) and make sure the number is also posted in a visible spot in your home.

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