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40 percent of parents accidentally give their kids the wrong dose of liquid medicine

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Forty percent of parents give their children the wrong dose of liquid medication — and it's largely due to how liquid medication is measured.

A new study published in Pediatrics found that many parents mix up teaspoons, tablespoons, and regular kitchen spoons when administering liquid medicine to their children. As a result, parents who based doses on a teaspoon (equivalent to 5 milliliters) or tablespoon (equivalent to 15 milliliters) instead of simply milliliters were more than twice as likely to pour the wrong dose for their children.

Some of the errors can be attributed to directions on prescriptions and medicine bottles: nearly one-third of bottle labels in the study were inconsistent with the prescription. (The researchers called for pharmacists and other health professionals to be more careful and consistent with such labels, so parents are less prone to errors.)

But most of the errors came from confusion about how, exactly, to measure a tablespoon or teaspoon. Parents who measured doses prescribed in teaspoons and tablespoons were twice as likely to use a nonstandard measuring instrument (such as a kitchen spoon), which more than doubled the chances of an error in the dose.

These errors can have serious consequences for parents and their children. Giving too small of a dose obviously makes the medicine less effective, while giving too much can make it toxic. Confusion about units of measurement results in more than 10,000 annual calls to poison centers, according to the study.

The study is based on data collected from 287 parents at emergency departments in two public New York City hospitals. A broader population or people living in different parts of the country could perform differently. It's also possible that the data collected from parents in a hospital setting could somehow differ with how parents measure their children's medicine at home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, and American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, support moving from tablespoons and teaspoons to the metric system. With this study, they have another reason to support the cause.