Children under five are at significant risk of death, disability and serious injury from unintentional injury. Public Health England makes a strong argument to focus on tackling the leading, preventable causes of death and serious long-term harm.

Poisoning is one of five principal causes of serious injuries for the under-fives in England. Here we look in more detail at the issue and the steps local authorities and their partners can take.

The scale and nature of the problem

About 21,000 under-fives in the UK go to A&E annually following poisoning incidents. These injuries lead to about 4,000 emergency hospital admissions each year in England, 95% of them for less than two days. But some poisonings can be very serious. About 100 children stay in hospital for more than three days each year. There are very few deaths.

The two main risks to under-fives are medicines and household chemicals:

  • Medicines are the cause of over 70% of poisoning admissions – particularly common painkillers.
  • Household chemicals account for nearly 20% of the admissions. 

Emergency admissions following poisoning are on the increase. They peak when the child is age one for household chemicals and age two for medicines. Safe storage is essential as child-resistant packaging is not child-proof.

Other products that can result in serious poisoning include small button/coin batteries and nicotine products such as electronic cigarette refills.

The links with child development

Babies and toddlers are particularly at risk of accidental poisoning because they explore by putting things into their mouths. They are attracted by bright colours and attractive packaging. Some products, such as liquid detergent capsules (‘liquitabs’) and blister packs of medicines, look similar to sweets.

Young children are at higher risk of harm from poisoning than adults – their small body size means that harmful substances make a greater impact.

Health inequalities

Children living in the most disadvantaged areas have a 50% higher risk of being poisoned resulting in primary or secondary care attendance than those in the most advantaged areas.

Action by local authorities and their partners

PHE shows that injury prevention does not require major new investment – much can be achieved by co-ordinating existing services and programmes, building on strengths and developing capacity. Support and training for the early years workforce is key.

Injury prevention initiatives can include home safety equipment schemes that supply and fit cupboard locks, and educational campaigns and resources on poisoning prevention.

Support from CAPT

CAPT worked closely with PHE to develop the resources and is now offering local authorities evidence-based support for effective action. This includes an opportunity to talk through the PHE guidance and explore local prevention opportunities. To find out more, contact Kevin Lowe on 020 7608 7363.

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Updated September 2014