The “Granny Syndrome”: Accidental poisonings in children


Most people recognize that accidental poisonings in children are a daily occurrence in the US. But you may be surprised to learn one common source of these poisonings: grandparents’ medications! A scientific study conducted at the Long Island Poison Center1 found that about two of every 10 medicine poisonings in children involved grandparents’ medications. Most of these poisonings, caused by what the study participants called the “Granny Syndrome,” involved grandparents’ medicines that had been left on a table or countertop, on low shelves, or in grandmothers’ purses.

Some grandparents, particularly those with arthritis, ask their pharmacists not to use child-resistant caps on their prescription vials so they can open them more easily. Or they may feel a false sense of security and fail to keep medicines out of reach of children because they come in child-resistant containers. But the study showed that almost half of the accidental poisonings happened with grandparents’ medicines that were in child-resistant containers. Grandparents also may not realize that a purse that holds medicines they need to take while visiting their grandchildren is an easy target. This is especially true for toddlers who are at greatest risk of poisonings because they are curious and put everything into their mouths.

In one case reported to the Poison Center, a 3-year-old boy swallowed a handful of his grandmother’s medicines from her purse. The grandmother had come over to bake cookies with her grandson. She placed her purse on a sofa while she went into the kitchen with bags of groceries. When she returned to the living room, she found her grandson was playing with the medicines she had in her purse. The child looked up and said “M&Ms, Nana!” The grandmother had always carried a couple days’ worth of medicines in a plastic bag in her purse in case she was out of the house when the medicines were due to be taken. Unfortunately, the types of prescription and nonprescription medicines often taken by grandparents have caused severe poisonings in children. These medicines include: antidepressants, pain medicines, diabetic medicines, heart and blood pressure medicines, and even athletic rubs. In this case, the grandmother was uncertain of the names and doses of her medicines—she referred to them as her “water pill,” “diabetes pill,” and “blood pressure pill.” While this made it harder for the doctor to determine the proper treatment, the child suffered no permanent harm from the accident.

See below for steps to help prevent accidental poisonings in children from medicines:

  • To prevent accidental poisonings in children from medicines:
  • Keep all medicines locked in a secure cabinet or drawer out of reach of children.
  • Never leave medicines on counters or tables (including children’s vitamins or iron supplements), even if they have child-resistant caps or containers.
  • Avoid keeping medicines in purses, backpacks, or suitcases where children may explore.
  • When children visit other residences, be observant of potential poisoning dangers and intervene before an accident can happen.
  • Do not take medicines in front of children, because they tend to mimic adults. 
  • Never refer to medicine as candy. 
  • Be cautious when medicine is out on the counter ready to be used, as many poisonings occur when an adult becomes distracted while using the medicine. 
  • Use child-resistant caps or containers and be sure they are closed properly after use; however, remember that “child resistant” does not mean “child proof.”

Contact a Poison Control Center immediately if you think an accidental poisoning occured: 1-800-222-1222.

Reference: 1) McFee RB, Caraccio TR. “Hang up your pocketbook”—an easy intervention for the Granny Syndrome: grandparents as a risk factor in unintentional pediatric exposures to pharmaceuticals. JAOA. 2006;106(7):405-411. Accessed at:   

Created on November 5, 2010

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