Your Health

All it takes is one pill for a child to become seriously ill

Avocado and salmon salad.
Photo of Chantel Moodoo. DR. LYNNE WARDA
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, December 15, 2017

A curious child rummages through a purse left unattended on the kitchen table.

She discovers a bottle of medicine and pops a couple of pills into her mouth without anyone noticing. Suddenly, the child seems woozy and out of sorts, and no one knows why.   

The toddler is rushed to hospital. Fortunately, the emergency department medical team is able to treat the young girl for an overdose of a medication to lower blood sugar. 

As an emergency department physician, I can tell you this kind of thing happens more often than many people realize. And it doesn’t always turn out well.

Statistics published in 2011 show that, at the time, Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg’s Children’s Hospital was treating an average of 80 children under the age of five every year for ingesting hazardous substances. Most of these children were treated and released. But a small number were admitted to intensive care, and every few years a child died.

Today, poisoning is considered the fourth leading cause of injury hospitalization among children between one and four years of age. And while it can happen at any time, it is a particular worry around the holiday season.

That’s partly because we’re all so much busier at this time of year, visiting with friends and family. With everything that is going on during a holiday visit, it is much easier for medication to be left in a purse or coat pocket unattended, or for someone to accidentally drop a pill on the floor or between the pillows of a couch.   

And all it takes is one pill for a child to become seriously ill.  

There are a number of medications that can pose a risk to children. The list of potentially hazardous substances includes aspirin, acetaminophen, laxatives, some rubbing compounds for arthritis, and medications for allergies, colds, seizures, diabetes, heart conditions and high blood pressure, just to name a few.

But it is not just medicine that poses problems. In Manitoba, we have had cases of children drinking gasoline, lighter fluid and kerosene, which can cause immediate breathing difficulty and shortness of breath. Kids have also been known to swallow cigarette butts and dishwasher and laundry detergent pods, all of which are potentially toxic.

So, what can you do keep your kids safe, not just during the holiday season, but all year long? Here are a few tips:

  • Keep hazardous products and medications out of reach of children and use child-resistant containers. Check areas where infants are playing for lost pills, cigarettes and butts, coins, and other small objects.
  • If friends or relatives are visiting, keep purses and all medications out of reach.
  • Keep an eye on the kids during holiday get-togethers. Watching kids at a party is not unlike keeping an eye on them when they are in a swimming pool or at the lake – an adult should be supervising at all times.
  • Recognize the symptoms of poisoning. A child who has ingested a medication or other hazardous substance may appear groggy, pale, or weak, and their breathing might be laboured or shallow.    
  • Learn what to do if you think someone has been poisoned. If your child appears disoriented or you suspect they have ingested a toxic substance, go to the emergency department. If the child is unresponsive, having trouble breathing or convulsing, call 911. If the child is not breathing, start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Do not force someone to vomit. But if the child is awake and able to swallow, you can give sips of water to drink.
  • If you have questions about the products in your home and about what to do if they are used inappropriately, contact the Manitoba Poison Centre (MPC) toll-free at 1-855-776-4766 or visit The website also has a more comprehensive list of tips for handling cases of poisoning. 

The home is often a busy place this time of year, as friends and family gather to celebrate the holiday season. But it is also worth noting that more kids are poisoned in and around the home than anywhere else. That’s why it is important to be aware of the potential hazards, and to take the necessary steps to protect your child against them – not just during the holiday season, but all year long.

Dr. Lynne Warda is Medical Director of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's injury-prevention program and an emergency physician at Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg’s Children's Hospital. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, December 15, 2017.

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