Prevent medicine-related poisonings this summer

Child kneeling on bed playing with toys and looking inside of an open suitcase with clothes and medications in it

Summertime in Oregon is here and with the state reopening, long-awaited family vacations and visits with loved ones may be resuming. Medicine goes with us as we travel and can be an overlooked hazard, especially for young children exploring their environment. This is a great time to review medicine safety measures to keep kids and loved ones safe.

Any medicine or vitamin can be dangerous if taken in the wrong way, the wrong amount or by the wrong person. Even over-the-counter medicine, vitamins and medicated creams may cause unwanted health effects. While some medicine-related exposures may not result in a “toxic exposure,” others may be very serious, leading to hospitalization, long-term injury or death.

Medicine is extremely common in American homes. According to the CDC, almost half of the U.S. population used at least one prescription drug in the past 30 days. For those without prescriptions, over-the-counter medicine and other drugs may be part of their daily routine or stored on-hand in case it is needed. Medicines in our homes may kept on a counter, side table or nightstand, in a cabinet, drawer or in the refrigerator. It may also be in the suitcase, backpack, diaper bag, coat pocket or purse of those visiting your home or with whom you are traveling. These are all places children and teens can reach them.

According to poison control call data, medicine is a top cause of poisoning among people of all ages year after year. Pain relievers are the most common medicine involved with calls to the poison center, followed by antidepressants, cardiovascular drugs and sedatives.

While many people associate medicine-related exposures with young children, older children, teens and adults also experience unwanted effects from medicine when taken in wrong way or wrong amount. Double doses, medication mix-ups and other medication administration mistakes are common causes of unintentional medicine exposures in teens and adults. Experimentation, misuse and other intentional exposures, including self-harm ingestions occur among these age groups as well. Exposures among teens and adults are typically more serious because of the types of substances and the amount of the substance they consume.

Reduce the risk of accidental exposures and misuse

Medicine-related poisonings are preventable. Reduce the risk of accidental exposures and misuse by putting medicine up and away and out of children’s reach and sight. Locking up your medicine is the safest way to keep and store medicine in the home and while on the go.

A medicine lockbox or locking bag is a great option for safe storage. These are portable and can be placed in a suitcase or bag while traveling.

Many of these items are available at the OHSU Doernbecher Tom Sargent Safety Resource Center. Give them a call at 503-418-5666.

A basic cabinet lock or child safety lock on the cabinet where the products are stored in the home can provide an extra measure of protection, especially when used in conjunction with a medicine lockbox. These low cost devices can be packed in a suitcase for use in a vacation rental or home you are visiting.

Family members with older children or those without children at home may not be aware of the risk of unsecured medicine. Provide visitors a safe place to store coats, purses, backpacks, and suitcases while visiting. This could be a locking closet or cabinet. Take care to re-secure it each time it’s accessed.

Remember that medicine bottles are not childproof. These containers may have child-resistant features but only slow children down; they do not prevent children from accessing the contents. The safety cap must be re-secured after each use in order for it to slow down a determined child. Pillboxes, organizers and plastic bags may be used to organize pills for travel or convenience. These containers are not child-resistant and can be opened by young children. If you use them, secure them in a lockbox, lock bag or lockable cabinet. Never put food or treats in pillboxes for children to eat or play with. Children may assume the contents are edible the next time they see one.

Conversation starters when visiting or hosting family and friends

Typically, the medicine kids get into belongs to grandparents, parents and sometimes siblings, and is accessible because of adult behaviors. Talk with loved ones about medicine safety while visiting or hosting this summer. Here are a few conversation starters to use with loved ones:

“My kids are really curious right now and will try to get into everything, even your suitcase and purse! If there’s any medicine inside, they might find it. I cleared this closet out for you to use while you are here. There’s a lock on the door so the kids can’t get into it.”

“I know your kids are grown up now but mine are still too young to know what is safe. I want to make sure we keep any medicine you might be traveling with out of reach. This shelf in the entryway is for purses and bags while you are here.”

“Is there a safe place I can keep my purse and diaper bag while we’re visiting? I have medicine in both and I want to keep it out of reach of our kids.”

Family education and resources

Learn more from the Up and Away campaign, which works to remind families about the importance of keeping medicines out of sign and reach of young children.

Teach children from a young age not to touch, taste or smell anything they have not been given by a trusted adult. This includes loose pills they may find on the floor, pillboxes, medicine bottles and anything else they may come across.

Visual cues like Mr. Yuk stickers can remind children not to touch medicine. The Oregon Poison Center provides educational materials and poison safety resources to the community free of charge. Visit our website to learn more about poison prevention at home, download materials and order poison center brochures, Poison Help magnets or Mr. Yuk stickers.

Medicine lockboxes and other low-cost safety supplies are available at the Tom Sargent Safety Resource Center at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. Contact the Safety Center to schedule a home safety consultation and learn more about keeping your family safe.

Poison Help

If you or a loved one is experiencing a poison emergency, call the Oregon Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222. A trained healthcare provider is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The call is free and confidential.

Prepare for a poison emergency by programing the poison control hotline into your mobile device by texting POISON to 797979. Share the number with babysitters, caregivers and relatives who may come into your home or care for your children.

Accredited by the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the Oregon Poison Center at OHSU is a designated regional poison control center for Oregon, Alaska and Guam.


Headshot of a smiling womanJennifer Eskridge, M.P.H., MCHES®
Community Outreach Educator, Web Manager
Oregon Poison Center
Oregon Health & Science University