Methadone is the most common cause of unintentional fatal poisoning from prescribed drugs among UK toddlers, researchers have found.
The drug accounts for more than half of all such deaths among young children and for a significant proportion of admissions to intensive care, according to findings published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.
“It is vital that… extensive efforts are made to ensure the safety of children who might be at risk of exposure”
In 2013-14, the National Poisons Information Service received more than 14,000 calls from healthcare professionals about suspected childhood poisonings, many related to prescribed drugs.
While severe side effects are rare, the study authors noted that certain drugs could be fatal for a toddler swallowing adult doses – for example tricyclic antidepressants, antipsychotics, quinine, calcium channel blockers, opioids, and oral hypoglycaemic drugs.
The researchers analysed national data on childhood poisonings, and hospital treatment and admissions to intensive care for unintentional poisoning from 2001-13.
During the period, 28 children under four died in England and Wales as a result of unintentional poisoning with a prescribed drug. Methadone was found to be the cause in 57% of cases.
Around 200 toddlers were admitted to intensive care as a result of unintentional poisoning with prescribed drugs. Benzodiazepines accounted for 19% of cases and methadone accounted for 17%.
The researchers noted that admissions for unintentional poisonings in under-fives fell by more than 20% in England between 2000 and 2011. Nevertheless, severe and fatal poisonings from prescribed drugs continued to occur, most of which could have been avoided, they warned.
The researchers highlighted that methadone was a useful medicine but that it was also the second most common cause of drug related death in England and Wales after heroin/morphine.
In addition, they pointed out that patients to whom methadone was prescribed were potentially the least able to guarantee it would not be accessible to young children, due to their underlying condition.
“It is vital that before and during the prescribing of methadone, extensive efforts are made to ensure the safety of children who might be at risk of exposure,” stated the researchers from the Great North Children’s Hospital in Newcastle upon Tyne.
In 2013, more than two million prescriptions for methadone were issued to more than 140,000 adults.