2012 Jordan Institute
17, No. 1
Preventing Accidental Poisoning Deaths
A mother is panicked to find her toddler barely breathing and listless. A child is traumatized when he loses his father to drug overdose.
As accidental drug poisonings surged over the past decade, stories like these have become all too familiar to social workers, emergency responders, and medical providers. When you consider the scope and nature of this problem, it’s clear child welfare workers can help prevent accidental overdoses and deaths.
Scope of the Problem
Risk of accidental overdose and death is made worse by the combined use of pharmaceuticals with alcohol or other substances and “doctor shopping,” which occurs when patients obtain prescriptions from multiple physicians with no coordination among the doctors involved. The addictive effects of some prescribed drugs may also increase the likelihood of unintended consequences.
Opioids—synthetic versions of opium—are good candidates for misuse and abuse because they cause euphoria. These drugs are typically prescribed for pain management and can be highly effective, but when taken in excess they can suppress breathing to a fatal degree (CDC, 2010). Challenges faced by patients with opioid prescriptions can include storing the drug safely within the home, negative drug interactions (if they take multiple medications), and the risk of overmedication (if higher than needed dosages are prescribed).
Access to pharmaceuticals for non-medical use also happens through sharing among family or friends, theft, purchase through illicit means, or online vendors who don’t require a prescription. This kind of use is especially risky because it occurs without medical oversight.
In addition, all parents, extended family members, foster parents, and others should take these steps to protect children from accidental poisoning:
Share this information during home visits, post it visibly within the agency, and add it to the agency website.
Additionally, child welfare professionals can work to improve families’ access to a medical professional and to treatment for substance abuse. Knowing that a mental illness or a history of substance abuse can raise the risk for an overdose, help those with these challenges find the critical services for monitoring health and reducing risk factors.
Above all, social workers can bring compassion and concern to families who have experienced the pain of a non-fatal or lethal overdose, and can ensure that the voices of survivors and family members are heard when a community decides how to respond to this complex and challenging public health issue.