Getting into prescription or over-the-counter medicines at home is a major source of accidental poisoning for young children.
Yet, nearly half of parents say they have leftover prescriptions at home, a new poll shows.
"We found that it's common for parents to keep medicines long after they are expired or no longer needed, which creates an unnecessary health risk for children," said Sarah Clark. She co-directs the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health at University of Michigan Health.
"Younger children getting into medicine in the home is a major source of unintentional poisonings. For older children, access to these medicines brings risk of experimentation, diversion to peers or other intentional misuse," Clark said in a university news release.
The nationally representative poll surveyed 2,023 parents of children 18 and under between August and September 2022. It asked a variety of questions about over-the-counter and prescription medications in the home.
While fewer than half of parents surveyed said they believe that over-the-counter medicine is less effective past its expiration date, only about 20% of parents think it's unsafe.
"Parents may not realize that medicine is expired until they need it to address their child's symptoms," Clark said. "At that point, parents must decide if they will give the expired medicine to their child or go out to purchase new medicine."
More than one-third of parents said it was never OK to give their child expired medicine. Another one-third said it's fine to give expired medicine up to three months past the expiration date. About the same number said it would be acceptable to give the medicine six months or longer past the expiration date.
"The expiration date is the manufacturer's guarantee that a medication is fully safe and effective; over time, the medicine will lose its effectiveness," Clark said. "Parents considering whether to give their child medicine long past its expiration date should question how well it will work."
While more than 60% of parents said they are more careful about disposing leftover prescriptions than over-the-counter medication, most also believe it's important to properly dispose of expired or leftover medicine to prevent children from getting into the medicine and to protect the environment.
But many still didn't know where to put it. About three-fourths said they do not know which medicines should be mixed in with coffee grounds or kitty litter. About 1 in 7 has flushed medicine down the toilet.
Clark said the safest choice is to drop off medicine at a permanent collection site at a doctor's office, pharmacy or hospital, or at a community site in conjunction with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's twice annual National Drug Take Back Day. The next one will be held on Oct. 29.
"Unused and expired medications are a public safety issue and pose health risks to children," Clark said. "It's important that parents dispose of them properly when they're no longer needed, to reduce risks of kids getting sick as well as the negative impact on the environment."
Parents can help protect their children from unused medication by limiting what they bring into the home, poll researchers said. Consider filling only part of a prescription that is meant to be taken "as needed" for pain. Avoid buying large amounts of over-the-counter medicines.
Keep all medication in its original packaging, including with its dosing and expiration information. Twice a year, check expiration dates for your child's over-the-counter medicines.
Monitor certain medications that can be misused, including pain medication and sleep medication, especially if you have older children, the researchers advised.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has more on disposing unused medications.
SOURCE: University of Michigan, news release, Oct. 24, 2022