The Unexpected Dangers in Your Medicine Cabinet

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October 24, 2014

by Josh Knoebel, PharmD Candidate

Your doctor prescribes medications to help you control the pain you are feeling. The drugs do their job, and the pain gradually stops. This doesn’t prevent you from keeping the medicine though; after all, it was expensive, and who knows when you may need it again? This is a common scenario in many households, and a recent study published in Pediatrics: The Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics confirms a concern many health professionals share regarding household medication management. The common opinion is to keep medication up and out of sight of children, but is that enough? As parents know far too well, children are not limited to what they can reach from the floor. If they see mommy put that “candy” in the cabinet, they may just try to climb onto the counter and get it themselves. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims that more than 1.4 million emergency department visits were related to pharmaceuticals in 2011, and of the 41,340 drug overdose deaths in the United States, 22,810 (55%) were related to pharmaceuticals.1 Over 60,000 of these emergency department visits were for children six years or younger, and over 500,000 calls were made to poison control centers concerning these youngsters.2

Twelve specific active ingredients were found by the Pediatrics study that caused nearly half of the poisonings in the United States.2 Opioids (17.6%) and benzodiazepines (10.1%) top the chart as the classes of drugs with the highest number of poisonings. The twelve most common active ingredients of poisoning cases in children age six and under are listed in order of decreasing incidence:

  1. Buprenorphine (734 cases)
  2. Clonidine (701 cases)
  3. Glipizide (386 cases)
  4. Clonazepam (368 cases)
  5. Metoprolol (314 cases)
  6. Lorazepam (309 cases)
  7. Lisinopril (298 cases)
  8. Amlodipine (295 cases)
  9. Bupropion (265 cases)
  10. Glyburide (257 cases)
  11. Hydrocodone (252 cases)
  12. Oxycodone (249 cases)

The number of medication poisonings has continued to rise from 2004 to now3, a trend that is certainly reversible with diligence.

There are measures you can take to keep not only small children, but teenagers and adults alike safe from accidental medication poisoning. The first step is to make sure that all medications are kept in child-safe containers. Daily pill containers are convenient to remember medication use, but are often not child proof. Second, properly dispose of any and all out dated medications. Disposal of medications in the trash is not advised as they are still accessible to a curious child, or even the family pet. Contact your local pharmacist and ask about take back programs in your community.4 If there are no medication disposal programs available, there are three steps endorsed by the FDA for disposal in household trash. First, remove the medication from its original packaging and scratch out any personal information. This helps to protect your identity and sensitive health information. Second, make the medications unusable by mixing with inedible materials such as kitty litter, old coffee grounds, or sand. Lastly, put the mixture into sealable containers to prevent medication from falling out of the trash can.4

The most important change in preventing medication poisonings is to take your medications out of the medicine cabinet and keep them in a secure location. The best options are a lock box or a combination safe in a low traffic area of the house such as the bedroom closet. Ironically, the bathroom medicine cabinet is one of the least effective places to keep medications. Not only is it easy to access for children, but humidity from the bath or shower can damage the medications.5

What other preventative methods do you use with your medicine? Leave a comment below and let us know how you keep your medications secure!


  1. Paulozzi LJ. Prescription drug overdoses: a review. Journal of Safety Research. 2012;43(4): 283-289.
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Highlights of the 2011 drug abuse warning network (DAWN) findings on drug-related emergency department visits. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. /DAWN127/DAWN127/sr127-DAWN-highlights.pdf. Posted February 22, 2013. Accessed September 29, 2014.
  3. Lovegrove MC, Mathew J, Hampp C, Governale L, Wysowski DK, Budnitz DS. Emergency hospitalizations for unsupervised prescription medication ingestions by young children. Pediatrics. 2014;134(4): e1009-1016.
  4. Office of the Commissioner. Consumer updates – how to dispose of unused medicines. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. /ucm101653.htm. Posted December 24 2013. Updated May 19 2014. Accessed October 13 2014.
  5. Dugdale DC, Zieve D. Storing medication safely. Medline Plus. /medlineplus/ency/article/007189.htm Updated 3/26/2011. Accessed 10/22/2014.

Posted in: Pediatrics