By John Whyte, MD, MPH
More than 240 million people rely on over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. With self-care on the rise, it’s important that patients know how to use, store, and dispose of OTCs safely —especially when they have young children at home.
Parents feel they have it pretty well figured out when it comes to the basics of safely using OTCs. A 2015 Harris Poll found that 79% of adults with children under 18 say they always read any portion of the label when giving OTCs to a child. Another 96% say they check the label to make sure the medicine is appropriate for the child. This is great news, but there’s more to safe use than reading the label.
Where parents and other caregivers store medicines is an important part of using them safely. Nearly half of adults (46%) say they could be better at properly and safely storing OTC medicines, and more than 1 in 3 parents (36%) say the location where OTCs are stored in their home is accessible to a child. The consequences of this behavior are serious. About 60,000 young children are brought to the emergency room each year after getting into medicines that were left within reach. Often the symptoms range from abdominal pain and vomiting to extreme fatigue, unresponsiveness and confusion.
It’s also important that parents know how to safely get rid of OTC medications, as the medicines may no longer provide the treatment that children need. While the same survey found that 70% of adults say they could be better at properly disposing of their OTC medicines, 62% have never sought information about how to do so.
Here are some tips for safe use, storage, and disposal of OTC medicines:
1. Using OTCs
Read and follow the label every time you give a medicine.
- Dose by symptom: Only give a medicine that treats your child’s specific symptoms.
- Never use cough, cold, or allergy medicines to make your child sleepy.
- Never give aspirin-containing products to your child or teen for flu-like symptoms, chickenpox, and other viral illnesses.
- Dose by age: Make sure the medicine is right for your child’s age.
- Do not use oral cough and cold medicines in children younger than 4.
- Know your child’s weight: Directions for some OTCs are based on weight. In these cases, check the label to dose the medicine by your child’s weight.
- Dose with the right device: Always use the measuring device that comes with the medicine—never substitute with a kitchen spoon.
- Don’t double up: Be careful not to give your child two medicines that contain the same active ingredients.
2. Storing OTC medicines
- Keep medicines up and away and out of your child’s reach and sight.
- Remind houseguests not to leave medicines in bags, coats, or other reachable places that children can get into.
- Lock the child safety cap completely—until you hear the click— every time after you use a medicine.
- Don’t tell your children medicine is candy, even if they don’t like to take their medicine.
- Be mindful when visiting or traveling with family—grandparents are four times more likely than parents to keep prescription medicine in easy-access places.
- Save the number to the Poison Help Line in your phone: 800-222-1222.
3. Disposing of expired OTC medicines
- Mix medicines with a substance such as kitty litter, dirt, or used coffee grounds (do not crush tablets or capsules).
- Place the mixture in a sealed container such as a zip-top plastic bag.
- Throw the container away in your household trash.
4. Talk to a healthcare provider if you have questions.
There are a number of free resources available to help. The site KnowYourOTCs.org has tips for parents, along with other information about safe medicine use.
John Whyte, MD, MPH, is the Director of Professional Affairs and Stakeholder Engagement for the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.