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(2009 AFP)
(2009 AFP)

Holiday decor that can poison Add to ...

" 'Tis the season to be poisoned, fa la la la la, la la la la."

That perverse variation on the well-known seasonal ditty should serve as a reminder that this is a time of year when some dangers come to the fore, particularly for young children.

First of all, it is cold and flu season.

A common reaction to illness - be it the sniffles, coughing, congestion, indigestion, diarrhea or headache - is to load up on medication, particularly over-the-counter products such as cough syrup, cold treatments and painkillers.

For adults, these products range from the largely useless (cough syrup) through to the fairly effective (Aspirin, Tylenol and the like).

But we should never forget that all drugs, no matter how commonplace and seemingly benign, can have side effects. Overdoing it - or more precisely overdosing - is dangerous. This is particularly true for children.

A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association focused on a little-recognized cause of overdoses: poor measurement devices.

The study, led by Shonna Yin of the New York University school of medicine, examined the 200 top-selling over-the-counter liquid pediatric medicines. She and her colleagues found shocking discrepancies in units of measurement (teaspoons, tablespoons, ounces, millilitres, cubic centimetres, drams), dosing instructions, labelling and measuring devices.

In other words, while we take great care in testing products for safety before they hit the market, once they're in the hands of parents, it's a bit of a free-for-all.

So it's not surprising that cold medicines, along with pain meds, are among the leading causes of pediatric poisoning.

Poisoning, thankfully, is not a big killer. According to Safe Kids Canada, an estimated five children a year die of accidental poisoning.

But 1,280 others end up in hospital with severe injuries - sometimes lifelong - due to ingesting poisons, most of them commonly found in the home.

That is just the tip of the iceberg. Canada's network of poison-control centres handles more than 160,000 calls annually, almost half of them involving children under the age of 6.

The Ontario Poison Centre publishes a list of the top 10 substances involved in poisoning of children. It is worth looking at that list through a seasonal prism, when parents are particularly stressed and there are many visits to friends and family whose homes may not be childproofed:

•Household cleaning products: bleach, cleaners, detergents, disinfectants. Those fresh lemony scents can be appealing to children and, in the rush to get the house ready for guests, we can forget to put things away.

•Pain medicines: When a holiday headache strikes, you may not take the time to put away the Aspirin or Tylenol, and pills can look like candies.

•Personal-care products: Items such as perfumes and creams are popular gifts, but, if ingested by children, can be noxious. So, too, can topical products such as hydrogen peroxide and even cream for diaper rash.

•Foreign bodies: Products such as toys, clothes and electronics can be packed with silica gel (poisonous) and thermometers contain lethal mercury. Of late, there has also been long-overdue attention on the lead and cadmium in cheap children's jewellery, products parents simply should not buy.

•Vitamins: These health products can contain enough iron or vitamin A to make a child seriously ill.

•Plants: Christmas staples such as holly, poinsettias and mistletoe can be poisonous to children (and to household pets as well).

•Cold and cough medicines: They have already been discussed above.

•Pesticides: Not only an issue in gardening season; people use rodenticides in their homes, and mothballs are poisonous.

•Gastrointestinal medications: Antacids, laxatives and proton pump inhibitors may be the type of things children find around the grandparents' home.

•Alcohol: During the holidays, alcohol often flows freely; it can also be left lying around the home in the wake of festivities. It takes only the equivalent of two drinks to cause fatal alcohol poisoning in a child.

The good news is that, if action is taken quickly, most cases of poisoning can be treated at home. Poison Control Centres all have 24-hour hotlines - a number that should be on the fridge of every household.

The nurses who take the calls do triage that prevents a lot of unnecessary emergency-room visits and provides valuable piece of mind to worried parents.

And while this service is invaluable, the goal should be to prevent poisonings. A quick scan of the home can reveal many potential problems, including poisons, choking and fall hazards, and other threats to little ones such as unsecured big-screen TVs, Christmas trees and Christmas and menorah candles. (You can guarantee that in the next couple of weeks that there will be several tragic stories of families dying in house fires. If you don't have a smoke detector, get one; it can be a life-saving gift.)

A few minutes invested in childproofing can ensure that the season is one of comfort and joy, not injury and tears.

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