by Wendy Stephan, Florida Poison Information Center – Miami

The call came into the poison control center around 11 p.m. An elderly woman was concerned she had done something dangerous. She had taken all of her medications at once, instead of spread out during the day.

The poison specialist went over her meds, one by one. It didn’t take long to realize that the caller was taking several very similar medicines. One was for pain, another was for anxiety, and yet another helped her sleep. The medications had been prescribed by several different doctors, on different occasions. Some of her medicines were known to have serious risks for older adults.

After determining the caller hadn’t taken enough to slow her breathing and heart rate dangerously, the specialist urged her to get in touch with her primary doctor the next day for a careful review of her medications.  After the call, the specialist said “She was about one glass of wine from a deadly overdose.”  Sadly, close calls like hers are not unusual.

This year, from March 18-24 during National Poison Prevention Week, poison control centers across the United States will do their part to educate the public to help prevent serious poisonings.

Over the past 50 years, there has been a remarkable shift in who gets poisoned and how. Nationally and in Florida, fatal poisonings are now almost exclusively an adult affair. These deaths far surpass cases in small children, who will always be at risk for poisoning due to their natural curiosity.

Just like the woman who called the poison center worried about mixing her meds, many adults take powerful medicines that have substantial risks, and many deaths are caused by mistakes with medications and/or alcohol.  Other people know they are taking risks with illicit drugs, but are struggling with addiction.

How can we stop these poisonings? First, by acknowledging they’re happening. The Injury Prevention Program of the Florida Department of Health reports that in 2016, nearly 14 Floridians died every day from poisoning. This shocking figure reflects a stark increase from previous years, with poisoning again being the #1 cause of injury deaths statewide. Out of the 4,985 poison deaths recorded, can you guess how many were children under 5?  Exactly four.  While we will continue to work toward zero child deaths, we can certainly do more to protect their parents and grandparents. Poison control centers in the U.S. now report that 35% of calls are about adults, a proportion that will likely rise.

Poison centers know how to save lives. Reductions in adult poison deaths are achievable by following some of the same rules we suggest for kids. Take steps to prevent poisonings and take action if an incident occurs:

  • Make sure your doctors and pharmacists know all of the medications you are taking – including herbal supplements or home remedies.
  • If you are in recovery from an addiction, tell your doctors. They can select medications less likely to trigger relapse.  Seek treatment for active addictions, even if it takes several tries to find a program that works for you.
  • If you or someone you know takes too much medicine or the wrong medicine, call 1-800-222-1222.  Calls to the poison center are quick, free and confidential.

This week, take a moment to avoid a tragedy by saving the poison control hotline, 1-800-222-1222, into your cell phone. You can also text ‘poison’ to 797979 for a quick download into your contacts. Poison control centers are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week – and they’re not just for kids anymore.

Wendy Stephan is a health educator at the Florida Poison Information Center – Miami.