Study: 1-in-5 teachers failed to distinguish medicines from candy

Most overdose hospitalizations of children attributed to unsupervised consumption

BOSTON — More than 1-in-4 kindergarten children, and 1-in-5 teachers, had difficulty distinguishing between medicine and candy in new research conducted by two now seventh-grade students, who presented their findings earlier this week at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition here.

Casey Gittelman and Eleanor Bishop conducted their study, "Candy or Medicine: Can Children Tell the Difference?" earlier this year at Ayer Elementary School in suburban Cincinnati.

The girls obtained a medicine cabinet from the Drug and Poison Information Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center with a mixture of 20 candies and medicines. They then randomly selected 30 teachers and 30 kindergarten students and asked them which items in the cabinet were candies, taking into consideration that many of the younger children were unable to read. In addition, participants were surveyed on how they stored medicine at home and their daily medicine usage.

Students correctly distinguished candy from medicine at a rate of 71%, while teachers did so at a rate of 78%. Students who couldn't read did significantly worse at distinguishing between candy and medicine compared to students who could read. The most common mistakes among teachers and students were M&Ms being mistaken for Coricidin (43%), SweeTarts for Mylanta (53%), Reese's Pieces for Sine-off (50%) and SweeTarts for Tums (53%).

"(The candy) most frequently mistaken were circular objects, those similar in color and shine, and those with no distinguishable markings," Bishop said. In addition, 78% of the 60 students and teachers in the study said medicines in their homes were not locked and out-of-reach.

"We found that neither teachers nor students store their medicines appropriately at home," Gittelman said. "Interventions to educate families about safe storage of medicines and manufacturing medicines to have distinguishable appearances may help to reduce unintentional ingestions of medications."

According to a post on, a consumer website operated by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association Educational Foundation to educate parents on safe use of over-the-counter medicines, research published in the September 2011 issue of the Journal of Pediatrics found that the number of accidental drug poisonings among young children increased 22% from 2001 to 2008. In 95% of the cases, the poisoning occurred because an unsupervised child ingested the drug, not because of a labeling or dosage error by a parent or healthcare worker.

Each year, almost 60,000 children under the age of 5 years wind up in hospital emergency rooms because of unsupervised medicine ingestions.

For proper medicine storage, the CHPA Education Foundation advised:

  • Choose a place that is high up and out of sight to keep all of your family’s medicines and vitamins, including those products you use every day;

  • Put medicines and vitamins away — out of reach and out of sight — every time after you use them;

  • Always lock the child safety cap completely each time you use a medicine;

  • Remind house guests of safe medicine storage so they don’t leave medicines in bags, coats or other reachable places that small children can get into;

  • Always tell children what medicines are, never referring to them as candy; and

  • Keep the national poison control helpline number handy, or program it into your phone: (800) 222-1222. 


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