young boy reaching for pill bottles For years, the majority of calls to the Poison Control Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have been about substances ingested by children under 6 years old. So just what are those little ones getting into?

Learning about the top five substances kids tend to ingest can make you more aware of the seemingly safe items in your home that are potentially poisonous — and help you prioritize your poison prevention efforts. Here, the experts at the Poison Control Center share these top five substances and offer their expert advice for keeping kids safe.

1. Cosmetics and personal care products

Really? Make-up? It’s actually not as surprising when you realize this category also includes products like toothpaste, hair care products, mouthwashes, nail products, hand sanitizer and soap — all of which many parents don’t consider to be “harmful” until an exposure occurs. These products are commonly left on dressers and countertops, in drawers and other places easily reached by little ones.

If these products are ingested in large enough amounts, vomiting, diarrhea, and irritation may occur. Exposure to the eyes can cause irritation and scratches on the surface of the eyeball. And some personal care products, especially hair relaxers and dyes, can even cause severe burns in the mouth and esophagus.

To make matters worse, many cosmetic and personal care products come in packaging that isn’t child resistant. That’s why you should also store them out of reach.

2. Cleaning substances

Cleaning products are in every household and often come in bright bottles that kids can’t help but notice. Exposure to these products — whether they’re ingested or they come in contact with the skin or eyes — can cause everything from minor irritation to severe chemical burns.

One particular class of cleaning products the Poison Control Center has been paying close attention to is laundry pods. Their candy-like appearance has made them a toddler magnet, and unfortunately, they cause some serious effects when ingested, including severe vomiting, choking and breathing issues.

Be sure to keep cleaning products locked up where toddlers can’t access them. And use extra caution when cleaning: Often, children get into these poisonous products while they’re being used.

3. Pain medications

It might not be a long stretch to say that nearly every American home has at least one type of pain medication in it. Whether it’s the bottle of acetaminophen kept on hand in case little Johnny gets a fever, the bottle of ibuprofen tablets mom uses for her headaches, or the bottle of unused Percocet dad kept from his last dental procedures. Availability and access to a substance are required for an exposure to take place.

That’s why the poison control experts always recommend keeping medications — even over-the-counter medicines — stored up tight and out of sight of little ones. You should also get rid of unused prescription medications: Not only can young children be harmed by many prescription pain relievers, but unneeded pills hanging around in your home can serve as an opportunity for experimentation by curious adolescents. Here is a guide from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on how to dispose of unused medicines.

4. Foreign bodies

Little kids learn by exploring their environment, and this includes putting things into their mouths. They aren’t able to differentiate food from non-food, so it’s no surprise that foreign bodies are on this list. Some common calls to the Poison Control Center include swallowing a penny, eating big brother’s Legos, or consuming the silica gel pack from mom’s new shoes.

Most foreign bodies pose choking or blockage risk and may require an x-ray and monitoring. Others such as button batteries and high-powered magnets can be very dangerous if ingested.

5. Topical products

This broad category includes items like diaper cream, steroid ointment, and hemorrhoid cream. Why do these substances make the list? Typically, topical products do not come in child resistant containers. Plus, they’re in most homes and are often left in places that are convenient for adults — which means they’re readily accessible to small kids, too.

Fortunately, many of these products do not pose significant problems, when ingested in small amounts. Still, to keep your family safe, store them somewhere out of sight and mind from curious little kids.


In addition to keeping these and all potentially hazardous substances out of reach, remember that nurses and pharmacists at The Poison Control Center are available 24/7 at 1-800-222-1222 to answer any questions.


Contributed by: Jeanette D. Trella, PharmD, BCPPS

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