First national poisons report reveals poisoning patterns across age groups

31 July 2018

A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia has outlined that one in four children may be exposed to a substance that will require a call to the Poisons Information Centre before they turn five.

The paper, written in conjunction with Australia’s four Poisons Information Centres and The University of Sydney, sheds light on the variety of poisoning exposures in Australia. It also highlights patterns in the types of poisonings which occur within different age groups.

It is the first study of its kind to give detailed national insight into poisoning across the country, looking at the latest data from 2015.  In the past, data reporting has been done by individual centres or hospitals, but this coordinated approach allows for national patterns to guide national prevention strategies.

“We are working towards a national framework for Poisons Information and Prevention and this report is the first step in the right direction,” said Ms Alanna Huynh, lead author and Specialist in Poisons Information at the NSW Poisons Information Centre (PIC) at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

Australian Poisons Information Centre’s across the country provide a 24/7 365 day service to the public and health professionals recording 205,000 calls in 2015.

The results highlights the diverse nature of calls to the PICs, with nearly 65 per cent of calls about unintentional exposures, 18 per cent were regarding medication errors and over 10 per cent of calls were to provide advice on deliberate self-poisonings (self-harm overdose). 69 per cent of calls came from the general public, while nearly 28 per cent were from health professionals, more than half of these from within hospitals.

The study also shows how poisoning risks change with age, with neonates and elderly populations most likely to be poisoned as a result of a medication error.  On the other hand, infants and toddlers are most likely to be accidentally exposed to household products due to their curiosity at these ages.  In these age groups, most callers were advised to stay at home following exposure.

Adolescents are the age group most likely to be involved with deliberate-self poisoning and recreational exposures.  They were also the most likely age group to be referred to hospital following a call to a PIC, with 23.9 per cent of callers being referred, compared to the average referral rate of 10.9 per cent across all ages.

National information on poisoning patterns across different age groups should help inform coordinated effective poisoning prevention strategies in the future.

For further information from Ms Alanna Huynh, listen to this podcast from the Medical Journal of Australia.

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