Close up image of a child's hand reaching for a brownie dessert
U.S. poison control centers recorded over 7,000 cases of children ages 6 and under who consumed cannabis edibles from 2017 to 2021, according to a new study. Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images
  • As more U.S. states legalize marijuana, products like cannabis edibles are becoming readily available.
  • A new study reports U.S. poison control centers recorded more than 7,000 cases of children ages 6 and younger who accidentally consumed cannabis edibles from 2017 to 2021.
  • Parents, caregivers, and concerned adults with access to cannabis products should take extra precautions to keep edibles away from younger children.

Cannabis (marijuana) edibles — such as gummy candies, chocolate, and baked goods — contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant.

These treats are sometimes packaged in appealing colors and fonts that may resemble non-cannabis products.

“These products often come in ‘copycat’ packaging that looks like the real candy, leading to unintentional THC poisoning if kids eat them,” said Dr. Colleen Kraft, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“This is particularly dangerous for kids who are too young to read,” she added.

In fact, the number of small children in the United States who accidentally ate cannabis edibles rose sharply in the past 5 years, according to a recent study published on Jan. 3 in the journal Pediatrics.

Many of these children were hospitalized, with some ending up in critical care units with breathing problems and other serious complications.

“Ever since the legalization of marijuana, there has been an increase in unintentional pediatric exposures, particularly with the edible formulations of THC,” said Dr. Jonathan Ford, a medical toxicologist at UC Davis Health in Sacramento, CA.

Accidental cannabis poisonings on the rise

The new research indicates that between 2017 and 2021, U.S. poison control centers recorded more than 7,000 cases of kids younger than 6 who consumed cannabis edibles.

Cases in this age group increased from 207 in 2017 to 3,054 in 2021 — an increase of 1,375%, according to researchers.

These are just the reported cases, so the actual number of cases is likely higher, the researchers wrote.

Nearly one-quarter of children were hospitalized, with about 8% of children admitted to critical care units.

Drowsiness, lethargy, breathing problems, fast heart rate, and vomiting were among the most common symptoms. Almost 2% of children had more severe central nervous system symptoms, including coma.

More than half of the children were 2 to 3 years old, but some younger children also accidentally ate cannabis edibles.

In addition, over 90% of children obtained edibles in their homes.

No deaths were reported during the 5-year study period. Still, a 4-year-old in Virginia died last year after eating THC gummies, reports NBC.

Warning signs of cannabis poisoning

How sick a child gets after accidentally eating a cannabis edible depends upon the dose of THC. Some edibles are highly concentrated, which increases the risk of poisoning.

“Concentrations range anywhere from 5 milligrams to 50 milligrams of THC per gummy, chocolate or other edible,” Ford said, “and that can be a lot for a little kid who doesn’t weigh very much.”

Because of a child’s small size, “just one cookie or candy bar can lead to an overdose of THC in children,” Kraft noted.

Young children who’ve eaten a cannabis edible may experience symptoms such as:

  • anxiety and panic
  • weakness, poor coordination, and slurred speech
  • sleepiness, fatigue, or sluggishness
  • slow, shallow breathing

But symptoms may not always appear immediately after a child eats an edible.

“It takes the body longer to process ingested THC than inhaled THC,” Kraft said. “Therefore, a child could eat an edible and not have symptoms until hours later.”

When to seek help for accidental ingestion

The most common warning sign of accidental cannabis exposure is a child who is suddenly “not acting right,” with no other explanation, said Dr. Diane Calello, executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, New Jersey.

This may progress to sleepiness or other changes in behavior, she said. 

If your child has consumed a cannabis edible, or you suspect they have, call Poison Control immediately: 1-800-222-1222.

The trained healthcare professionals answering calls can help determine if you need to go to the emergency room or take steps to avoid a severe outcome.

Kraft emphasized that “if your child’s symptoms seem severe, call 911 or go to an emergency room right away.”

Even a symptom such as excessive sleepiness can be dangerous for children, especially if it lasts for a long time.

“We’ve had kids who have been so sedated for over a day that they risk getting dehydrated,” Ford said.

“If a child is having trouble staying awake to drink fluids or eat something, then they need to come in to be observed and maybe get IV fluids.”

Ford added that “really small children need to have frequent blood sugar monitoring to make sure that they don’t have dangerously low blood sugar levels.”

Keeping kids safe from cannabis edibles

Kraft said the best way to keep your kids safe from cannabis edibles is to not have them in your home. But if you do have them, you’ll need to take other steps.

California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and other states require cannabis edibles to be sold in child-resistant packaging. But some children may still find a way to open these.

Just because cannabis gummies are sold in a childproof container, you shouldn’t feel comfortable leaving them within a child’s reach, Ford said.

This is why Calello recommended putting several layers of safety in place.

In addition to storing edibles in child-resistant containers, “keep edibles up and out of sight,” she said. “And don’t buy products [that] look like your child’s favorite candy — that is an accident waiting to happen.”

If your child visits other households, Kraft suggests talking with the adults living there about storing cannabis edibles safely.

”No one wants to intentionally poison a child, but if family and friends use these products, they need to take the same precautions you would take,” she said.

Takeaway

The legalization of cannabis has led to the proliferation of available products like edibles, which may appear similar to candy and other sweet treats that appeal to young children.

In just 5 years, the number of children who’ve consumed cannabis edibles is at an all-time high — increasing from around 200 cases in 2017 to more than 3,000 cases in 2021.

If cannabis edibles are in your household, it’s a good idea to know the warning signs of accidental poisoning.

Concerned adults can prioritize the safety of younger children by storing cannabis edibles in childproof packaging and keeping them out of sight.

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