accidental poisoning

In 2019, an estimated 9.7 million people misused prescription painkillers, and 70.6 % of drug overdose deaths involved opioids. Not all of those deaths were the result of intentional misuse. Prescription opioids and opioid use disorder treatment medications kept in the home pose a danger to children and pets if they aren’t stored in secure containers and disposed of safely.

Learn more about how to protect your family members (including the furry ones) from accidental medication poisoning.

Dogs Are Also Victims of the Opioid Crisis

Although most pet owners consider their companion animals to be full-fledged family members, some people with substance abuse problems are willing to abuse their own pets to obtain opioid prescriptions from veterinarians. Fortunately, only a tiny minority of pet owners use or abuse their animals to gain access to opioids! Yet, even the most loving families may accidentally put their pets at risk.

In 2020, the journal Plos One published a study that analyzed calls to the ASPCA’s poison control hotline for pets between 2006 and 2014. Researchers found 5,162 cases of accidental pet opioid poisonings during that time. In general, smaller, younger dogs were most likely to be the subject of the calls.

Other common human medications, including over-the-counter painkillers, heart medications, antidepressants, and other drugs, are also dangerous for dogs. Cats are especially sensitive to acetaminophen but can also be poisoned by cold medicines, antidepressants, and other human medications.

It’s important to keep any type of medication in secure containers where pets can’t access them. Dogs are notorious for digging through garbage cans, so avoid disposing of household medications in regular trash containers. According to the FDA, securely locking, storing, and disposing of unwanted opioids should be a priority for pet owners. Proper disposal also helps protect the environment.

Opioid Poisoning Cases of Young Children Are Increasing

In 2018, the journal Pediatrics published a study of “Trends in Pediatric Deaths from Prescription and Illicit Opioids.” It highlighted an often-overlooked aspect of the national opioid crisis. Unsecured opioid medications pose a danger to children in the home – particularly young children and teens.

“Across the United States, nearly 5000 children younger than 6 years are evaluated annually in emergency departments for opioid exposures. In addition, hospitalizations for opioid poisonings increased nearly 2-fold across all pediatric age groups between 1997 and 2012. Rates more than doubled among children aged 1 to 4 years, and in adolescents aged 15 to 19 years, poisonings attributed to suicidal and unintentional intent increased 2- and 3-fold, respectively.”

Dr. Megan Land of Emory University in Atlanta presented a study to the 2020 Society of Critical Care Medicine congress. The result showed that opioid poisonings in children are becoming more deadly. In an interview, Land noted that the most common causes were “standard opiate pills likely to be in medicine cabinets, such as oxycodone, codeine, and tramadol. These are medications that someone might get for a sprained ankle or [after] surgery.

Small children spend a lot of time on the floor and at play. They’re particularly curious about unfamiliar objects and try to put everything in their mouths. That tendency can be deadly.

  • Thirteen-month-old Edwin Perocier Jr. died after his parents gave him a pill bottle containing Suboxone tablets to use as a rattle. Edwin managed to open the bottle and ingest one or more tablets.
  • Nine-month-old Maisie Gillan died after she and her parents visited the home of a neighboring family. The previous week, a visiting relative had dropped a single Methadone tablet on the floor. Maisie found it while crawling and swallowed it.

Tips to Keep Kids and Pets Safe from Medication Poisoning

Both of these examples were terrible accidents that ended in tragedy. Fortunately, there are ways to make medication safety part of your child- and pet-proofing plan.

  • Store medications out of sight and out of reach. A locked box or cabinet is safest for medications always kept in the home. Wall hooks for purses keep the contents out of reach of curious babies and toddlers. Avoid storing medicines in purses, nightstands, kitchen or bathroom counters, and other accessible locations.
  • Keep medications in their original packaging. Many people find the blister packs containing pills hard, even frustrating, to open. But that’s an important safety feature! They’re difficult for children and pets to open.
  • Never call medicine “candy” or treat pill bottles as toys. Children’s vitamins are designed to be both tasty and visually appealing, but thousands of children are treated in emergency rooms each year because of supplement overdose.
  • Safely dispose of unused/unwanted medications. If you don’t need it, don’t keep it around! Many people keep unused opioids “just in case” they may need them later, but leftover pills contribute to misuse. They may be stolen, misused by friends or family members, or consumed by curious children or pets.

Federal agencies recommend take-back options as the preferred method for opioid disposal. These options include:

  • Semi-annual drug take-back events sponsored by local governments and community organizations.
  • Secure medication collection receptacles located at pharmacies and law enforcement offices.
  • TakeAway Medication Recovery System envelopes are the most convenient solution for many people. Simply place your unused/unwanted medications in the postage-paid envelope and send it to Sharps Compliance for safe, compliant disposal. Medications within their entire packaging can be placed directly in the envelope. You don’t have to store them at home while waiting for a special drug take-back event or travel to a drop-off location.

Suspect Poisoning? Get Help Quickly

If you think your child may have been poisoned by medication or any other toxic substance, call the Poison Control Center at 1.800.222.1222.

If you suspect your pet has been poisoned, call the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center at 1.888.426.4435.

Sharps Compliance works with health care providers, state and federal regulators, and community organizations to educate the public about the importance of safe medication disposal. We also provide disposal options for community collection and in-home medication disposal. Our pharmaceutical waste disposal solutions help you keep your family and community safe from accidental poisoning and drug diversion.

Contact us by email or call 1.800.772.5267 to learn more.


Kathryn earned her Masters in Public Health with a concentration in Epidemiology from Texas A&M University and her Bachelor of Science from the University of Texas. She is certified in high-complexity testing by the ASCP and has been published in the journal Cancer Cytopathology. Her experience ranges from the clinical laboratory to compliance expertise in biohazardous waste management.

published in Medication DisposalTagged