How to Avoid Making Medication Mistakes at Home

This content has been clinically reviewed by Jeremy Adaza, Pharm.D. 

It’s a familiar routine. Your toddler is cranky and feels a little warm. You grab a bottle of over-the-counter fever reducer and give him a dose.

Not so fast.

Your pediatrician wants you to think twice before giving your child a liquid fever reducer or any other medication.

That’s because it’s easy to give a child too much medicine, and the consequences can be serious—even fatal. In the U.S., more than 7,000 children visit emergency rooms every year for problems related to medication reactions and errors in giving medication at home.

Parents Often Make Dosing Errors with Liquid Medications

Many parents unwittingly give their kids the wrong dose of liquid medicine—in some cases more than twice as much as instructed.

One study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that more than 80 percent of the 2,110 parents participating made at least one dosing error when dispensing liquid medications and that 68 percent of the errors were overdoses. The study also found that most errors occurred even when parents used a measuring cup. There were fewer errors when parents measured the dose with an oral syringe, the method recommended by doctors.

Protect Your Child from Medication Errors

These over-the-counter medication tips can help you make sure you’re giving your little one medication safely and accurately.

For over-the-counter medications:

  • Before you reach for an over-the-counter medicine, make sure your child needs it. In many cases, medication isn’t needed for a quick recovery, especially with cases of the flu or a common cold.  And if you’re unsure whether your child’s symptoms warrant medication, it’s always best to check with his doctor.
  • Follow the exact directions and dose recommendations for weight, rather than age, printed on medication labels.
  • Check the active ingredients to avoid accidental overdose. Don’t give a child acetaminophen (Tylenol) when he is taking other medications that may also contain acetaminophen. Always make sure to ask your physician or pharmacist what the maximum daily dose is for your child (based on their age and weight). Over-the-counter cough and cold medication is not recommended for kids under 6 due to side effects.
  • Never give a child adult formulations of medications.
  • Check the medication label for expiration dates. Expired medications can lose their strength and be harmful.
  • Measure the dose out exactly using only medication syringes, or the medication dispenser that came with the product. If your medication doesn’t come with a dosing device, ask the pharmacist for one. If you’re having trouble reading these medication administration devices, you can always ask your nurse or pharmacist. 
  • Never use kitchen spoons as substitutes—they’re not accurate.
  • Never give a child aspirin or anything containing salicylates, especially during viral illnesses, unless it is specifically prescribed by your physician.  Aspirin has been linked to Reye’s syndrome, a disease that can be fatal for kids.

For prescribed medications:

  • Make sure your pediatrician and pharmacist know your child's weight, his allergies and all of the medications he's taking, including other prescriptions, over-the-counter medications and vitamins or dietary supplements.
  • If you have any questions regarding your child’s medications (how much your child can take, drug interactions and food interactions), don’t hesitate to ask your physician or pharmacist and voice your concerns.
  • When your child’s doctor writes a prescription, make sure you can read it. If you can’t read the handwriting, your pharmacist might not be able to either.
  • When you pick up your child’s medicine from the pharmacy, make sure the label lists the medication your doctor prescribed, and the proper dose.
  • If you have a question about the dosing of the medication, always ask. For instance, does “four doses daily” mean every six hours around the clock, or just during waking hours?
  • If your doctor prescribes antibiotics, be sure you give your child the full course, even if he appears to be better. Stopping antibiotics mid-course can give lingering bacteria a chance to grow back, resulting in the need for even stronger antibiotics.
This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.