'Tweens' likely to misuse over-the-counter medications

By Daniel Gaitan

(Reuters Health) - Young pre-teens are likely to misuse over-the-counter medicines if they're not educated about proper use and the dangers of abuse, experts warn in a new campaign encouraging parents to talk with their children about household drugs.

Research suggests so-called tweens begin to self-administer over-the-counter (OTC) medicines during the fifth or sixth grade, experts say.


In 2012, U.S. poison centers managed nearly 300,000 exposure cases in children aged six to 19; more than half these cases involved medication errors and misuse. Each year, some 10,000 emergency center visits involving individuals younger than 18 are caused by adolescents self-administering OTC medicines, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC).


OTC Literacy, a project from the AAPCC and Scholastic Corporation, with support from McNeil Consumer Healthcare, commissioned two surveys to better understand the level of medicine safety awareness among U.S. youth and their parents.


OTC Literacy provides resources and educational materials specially designed to help parents and teachers teach tweens - that is, kids ages 10 to 12 - about medicine safety and the dangers of abuse (


The survey of 1,100 tweens found that only about half of them knew OTC medicines could be dangerous if misused. Asked about the differences between prescription and OTC medicines, only 56% of them answered questions correctly.


When tested on how to read a drug facts label correctly, tweens only answered 53% of questions correctly.


And a survey of 600 parents found they often overestimated their kids' knowledge of OTC medicine, such as the risks associated with not taking medicines as directed or combining multiple drugs at once. Most parents believed their children knew who to ask if they had questions concerning OTC medicines.


"This is a really serious issue that may have life-threatening results for kids and tweens. I see this in my office every day," Dr. Tanya Altmann, a pediatrician in Westlake Village, California, told Reuters Health. "In many cases, medications are left on counters for convenience or when somebody is sick, and tweens think they can take it if they have a headache or something."


Altmann recommends that parents teach their children about active ingredients and store medications and cough syrups out of reach.


Nicole Vesely, Safe Kids Coordinator with University of Wisconsin-Madison's American Family Children's Hospital, said she believes some accidental overdoses could be avoided if parents teach their children to always use the dosing device that comes with most cough syrups and liquid medicines.


"Parents don't always use the dosing device that comes with medicine, so if they use a different measuring device, like a teaspoon, it can lead to accidental overdose," she told Reuters Health. "I think many parents have a mindset that prescription drugs are much more dangerous than over-the-counter drugs, because they can be purchased whenever they want. But they have a lot of the same dangers."


Michael S. Wolf, a professor of medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said he believes many teens and some adults are confused by the small writing and packaging on most OTC drugs. He said the new surveys are not surprising, but will serve as a reminder of the need for more education about personal health for teens.


"Do they understand the difference between Advil and Tylenol? Do they know how to navigate a drug box? We haven't found a place or time to talk to tweens about these things, and we're confined to very small packaging with very small fonts," he told Reuters Health. "It's a very interesting age to be focusing on, the tweens, because this is a population that is transitioning to accept more responsibilities and take control over their own health."


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