6 Ways to Prevent Medication Errors at Home

Try these tips to reduce your chances of a potentially harmful mistake.

mother giving young daughter a spoonful of liquid medication

Updated on October 25, 2023.

When a child is ill, it’s tempting to give them any medicine you believe will help them feel better. And while certain drugs may relieve symptoms effectively, they must be chosen carefully and administered correctly. Mistakes can be dangerous—and even life-threatening. 

With that in mind, here are six smart strategies to ensure kids’ medication is helping, rather than harming.

Never give children aspirin unless prescribed

Many of us remember taking baby aspirin when we were young, but that was before researchers learned about its potential for serious harm. Aspirin shouldn’t be administered to anyone under age 19 unless directed by a healthcare provider (HCP), and should never be given to a child with a viral infection like a cold, flu, or chickenpox. Kids with metabolic disorders like phenylketonuria shouldn’t receive the drug, either. This includes baby aspirin which, despite its name, is not for babies—it’s commonly intended for adults with cardiovascular disease.

One big reason: Kids who take aspirin have a higher risk of developing Reye’s syndrome, a life-threatening illness that causes swelling in the brain and liver. For pain and fever relief, acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be better options for your child. 

Don't give kids medicines containing salicylates

Aspirin belongs to a family of drugs called salicylates, all of which increase the risk of Reye’s syndrome. Other common salicylates include magnesium salicylate (Doans) and bismuth subsalicylate (Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol). 

If you’re looking to relieve a child’s nausea or indigestion, speak with an HCP, who may recommend Pepto-Bismol children's chewable tablets. They contain calcium carbonate instead of bismuth subsalicylate and are considered to be generally safe for kids. Just be sure to double-check the label, as there are chewables for adults, too. Always reach out to an HCP if you're not 100 percent sure a medication is safe for your child.

Limit or skip over-the-counter (OTC) medicines promising multi-symptom relief

It's best if you give your child a simple pain reliever with just one active ingredient rather than a medication containing several different kinds of drugs. Here’s why:

  • When you use a multi-symptom product, there’s a good chance you’ll give your child medicines they don’t need.
  • These products often undertreat fever or pain and overdo the decongestant component, which can cause jitters.
  • Many multi-symptom items contain acetaminophen, which can be easy to miss. If a child is given an additional dose of acetaminophen (Tylenol), it raises risk of an overdose.
  • If your child reacts to a multi-symptom medication, it can be hard to know which ingredient was the cause. 

So, keep it simple: Stick with single-action medicines and go to an HCP with questions. If you do opt for a multi-symptom OTC medication, don’t forget to read labels and scan for contents. It will help you choose a product tailored to your child’s symptoms and reduce the chances of overdose. Double-check you’re administering the correct amount, as well.

Avoid decongestants

While they’re sometimes given to kids aged 6 to 11 for a stuffy nose, decongestants contain ingredients that can make your child agitated, irritable, or unable to sleep. 

Instead, try saline nose drops before bedtime. You can also use a cool-mist humidifier or a warm bath or shower to help your child breathe easier during the night.

Remember to shake well before using

Many people forget to shake liquid medicines. When these formulations aren’t mixed thoroughly, potent ingredients can settle to the bottom or float to the top. As a result, your child may receive a dose that’s too weak or too strong.

Check the expiration date

Though some medications become more powerful as time goes on, most drugs maintain their potency for a year or less. That's why they're stamped with expiration dates. Once that date has passed, it’s time to throw them away.

Next time you’re in your medicine cabinet, take a few minutes to go through pill containers, check expiration dates, and purge expired medication. You can dispose of them at a National Drug Take Back location near you.

Don't share prescription medications

Never give a child another person's prescription medicine. It may be tempting to save money, but this practice can be fatal. Since dosage is largely based on weight, your child may be prescribed a different dose than someone else—even another child of the same age. Your child may also have different symptoms, or they might react adversely to the medicine. 

What to do in case of a medication error

Remember to store all medications safely, tightly closed, out of the reach and eyesight of kids, and start teaching them about safety when they’re young. If you believe your child may have been given too much medicine, ingested the wrong medicine, or took medicine while you weren’t looking, dial Poison Control immediately at 1-800-222-1222. 

Article sources open article sources

Mayo Clinic. Reye’s Syndrome. February 16, 2023. 
Stanford Medicine Children’s Health. Reye Syndrome in Children. Accessed on July 27, 2023. 
Mayo Clinic. Salicylate (Oral Route, Rectal Route). Page last updated July 01, 2023. 
Waseem, Muhammed. Salicylate Toxicity. Medscape. Page last updated March 10, 2022. 
Weiss, Cynthia. Mayo Clinic Q and A: Decongestants can sometimes cause more harm than good. Mayo Clinic. March 1, 2022. 
Mayo Clinic. Cold medicines for kids: What’s the risk? February 23, 2022. 
Nemours KidsHealth. Medicines: Using Them Safely. Page last reviewed June 2023.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Don’t Be Tempted to Use Expired Medicines. Page last reviewed February 8, 2021. 
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Got a Sick Kid? Don’t Guess. Read the Label. Make sure you’re giving your children the right medicine and the right amount. June 29, 2018.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Patient Safety: Protect Your Children: Store & Use Medicines Safely. Last reviewed March 7, 2023.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. As They Grow: Teaching Your Children How To Use Medicines Safely. September 25, 2013.

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