Grandma Took the Wrong Pill

Unintentional poisonings are on the rise. Deaths from poisoning occur at double the rate of motor vehicle deaths. It’s a heartbreaking fact that many deaths and injuries are completely avoidable, especially when young children are the victims.

Yet, it may be surprising to know this: while children under age 5 account for about 40% of poison exposures requiring contact with emergency services, preventable poisoning deaths are near entirely within the adult population.

Many factors are contributing to these tragedies. The opioid crisis is one of the problems. But there are other issues arising from increased isolation and the impact this is having on overall well-being, including among older adults.

Changes in age, health status, and many other considerations can make adjustments to prescriptions advisable. But many older people are trying to limit potential exposure to COVID-19. This and other COVID-related issues have reduced doctor visits to review prescription medications. Northern winter is another powerful motivator for one less trip to the pharmacy. It’s placing older adults at risk of deviating from prescriptions.

Prior to the pandemic, unintentional poisonings among seniors were largely due to drug interactions. A large percentage of adults over the age of 65 years are prescribed medications from 10 or more different drug classes, accounting for the majority of all adverse drug-related hospitalizations.

But now there is concern about seniors engaging in intentional self-harm. Even in the best of times, older adults often experience loss of purpose. Retirement, the loss of a partner, and decline in physical health and cognitive abilities are the cause. Now, poor mental health resulting from the unabating doldrums of the pandemic are a new cause for concern.

Self-harm by poisoning should be on the radar. Past research has shown that older adults who start thinking about suicide often have relatively easy access to large quantities of potent medications.

What can be done if you fear a loved one has taken the wrong medication, or if there is any other fear of poisoning?

In Canada, more than 4000 people lose their lives each year due to poisoning. In the U.S., about 6000 people call poison control helplines every day. But an estimated 4,000 to 9,000 more don’t call for help when dealing with a poison exposure. That’s a lot of people taking potentially life-threatening problems into their own hands.

Why don’t they call? Some people simply don’t like seeking help over the phone. They may be embarrassed, feel judged, or worry about scaring children who overhear the discussion. Adolescents and young adults are increasingly resistant to using the traditional technology of a phone call!

Despite statistics showing increased cases of unintentional poisonings, poison control organizations report declines in call volumes over the past decade. So they are developing new options.

Fully automated and interactive tools may not be the same as speaking to an expert on a helpline. But these online and downloadable resources do offer a new way to get fast assistance. One example is available at It enables people who fear a mix up in medication to scan barcodes on products, use imprinted codes on pills, or even enter descriptions of the size, shape and colour of medications. These tools can help determine if an emergency room visit is needed.

Take a look at online resources for a refresher in poisoning prevention. In addition to medication, they offer reminders about the perils of household cleaners, little batteries, and the ubiquitous hand sanitizer. Helping grandma be safe can involve keeping all these risky items out of reach of her grandchildren too.

Sign-up at to receive our weekly e-newsletter. For comments, Follow us Instagram @docgiff and @diana_gifford_jones