Childhood Melatonin Poisonings Skyrocket in the Past 10 Years

Pam Harrison

June 24, 2022

The number of children in the United States who unintentionally ingested melatonin supplements over the past 10 years has skyrocketed to the point where, as of 2021, melatonin ingestions by children accounted for almost 5% of all poisonings reported to poison control centers in the United States, data from the National Poison Data System (NPDS) indicate.

This compared with only 0.6% of melatonin ingestions reported to poison control centers in 2012, the authors added.

"Basically the number of pediatric melatonin ingestions increased 530% from 8,337 in 2012 to 52,563 in 2021 so it's a 6.3-fold increase from the beginning of the study until the end," Michael Toce, MD, one of the study authors and attending, pediatric emergency medicine/medical toxicology, Boston Children's Hospital, said in an interview.

"And I think the biggest driver of this increase is simply that sales of melatonin have increased astronomically so there is just more melatonin at home and studies have shown there is a correlation between the amount of an individual medication in the home and the risk of pediatric exposure — so simply put: The more of a single substance in a home, the greater the chance that a child is going to get into it," he underscored.

The study was published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Melatonin Ingestions

All cases of single substance melatonin ingestions involving children and adolescents between Jan. 1, 2012, and Dec. 31, 2021, were included in the analysis. During the 10-year study interval, 260,435 pediatric melatonin ingestions were reported to the NPDS. Over 94% of the reported ingestions were unintentional and 99% occurred in the home.

Over 88% of them were managed on-site; most involved young male children aged 5 years and under, and almost 83% of children who ingested melatonin supplements remained asymptomatic. On the other hand, 27,795 patients sought care at a health care facility and close to 15% of them were hospitalized. Among all melatonin ingestions, 1.6% resulted in more serious outcomes; more serious outcomes being defined as a moderate or major effects or death. Five children required mechanical ventilation in order to treat their symptoms and 2 patients died.

The largest number of patients who were hospitalized were adolescents who took melatonin intentionally but the largest increase in the rate of exposure was in young, unintentional patients, as Toce observed. Interestingly, the largest yearly increase in pediatric melatonin ingestions — almost 38% — coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This might be related to increased accessibility of melatonin during the pandemic, as children spent more time at home because of stay-at-home orders and school closures," the authors speculate. Moreover, sleep disturbances were common during the pandemic, leading to a greater likelihood that parents were buying melatonin and thus exposing children to more melatonin at home.

Taken appropriately and at normal does, melatonin in itself is quite safe, as Toce stressed. However, "for any substance, the dose makes the poison, so taken in any significant quantity, anything is going to be dangerous." Moreover, it's important to appreciate that melatonin, at least in the United States, is regulated as a dietary supplement, not as a pharmaceutical.

"Thus, it doesn't get the same rigorous testing that something like acetaminophen does by the FDA and that means two things," Toce noted. First, if the product says that each gummy contains 3 mg of melatonin, no independent body is verifying whether or not that statement is true so there could be 3 mg of melatonin in each gummy or there could be 10 mg.

Secondly, because there is no impartial oversight for dietary supplements, there may in fact be no melatonin at all in the product or something else may be added to it that might be harmful. "Just because something is sold over-the-counter does not necessarily mean that it's safe," Toce stressed. To keep children safe from pharmaceuticals and supplements, he recommended several generic poison prevention tips. This advice could be passed on to patients who are parents.

  • Keep all pharmaceuticals and supplements preferably locked away so there is less risk of children and adolescents taking products either unintentionally or intentionally

  • If parents have no place to lock their products up, put them out of reach, high-up so children cannot easily access them

  • Keep the product in the original child-resistant packaging as opposed to taking the pills out of the packaging and putting it in a plastic bag. "Certainly we've seen that when medications are moved into a non-child-resistant container, ingestions go up," Toce warned

  • Don't refer to any medicine or supplement a child might take as "candy." "A lot of children have difficulty taking medications so some families will say: 'It's time for your candy,' " Toce explained. Then, if a child does discover the "candy" on a table where they have access to it, they will not recognize it as medication and they're likely to pop it into their mouth, thinking it is candy

Lastly, and most importantly, parents who are considering trying a melatonin supplement to help a child sleep better should first establish a stable sleep routine for their child. "They also need to limit caffeinated beverages before bed as well as screen time," Toce added.

And they should talk with their primary care provider as to whether or not initiation of a melatonin supplement is appropriate for their child — "and not just jump right into giving them melatonin without first discussing whether it is appropriate to do so," Toce stressed.

Remarkable Rise

In a comment on his own experience with melatonin poisoning over recent years, toxicology expert Kevin Osterhoudt, MD, of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, noted that it has been their experience that there has been a remarkable rise in poison center reports of children ingesting melatonin in the recent past. For example, the Poison Control Center at CHOP received nearly 4,000 calls involving melatonin ingestion by children 5 years old or younger in the 5 years between 2017 and 2021 with increasing numbers every year.

"The [current study] supports our regional observation that this has been a national trend," Osterhoudt said. Osterhoudt agreed with Toce that good sleep is healthy, and it is very important to develop good sleep habits and a regular bedtime routine. "In some situations, melatonin may be useful as a short-term sleep aid and that's a good discussion to have with your child's health care provider."

If parents do decide to give their child a melatonin supplement, they need to keep in mind that melatonin may alter how the body handles other drugs such as those used to treat epilepsy or blood clotting. They also need to know experts are still uncertain about how melatonin affects the body over the long term and whether it is safe for mothers to take during pregnancy.

Osterhoudt offered his own recommendations for safe melatonin use in the home:

  • Discuss planned melatonin use with your health care provider

  • Buy only high-quality supplements by looking for the "USP Verified" mark

  • Insist that manufacturers sell products in child-resistant bottles

  • Periodically inspect the medications in your home and dispose of medications that are no longer being used

  • Program the phone number of your regional poison control center into your phone; poison center experts are available 24/7 to answer questions and concerns about ingestions of melatonin (in the United States the number is 1-800-222-1222)

The study authors and neither Toce nor Osterhoudt had any relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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