Over the summer, a Maryland mother shared a cautionary tale after her toddler consumed 15 gummies containing THC, the high-inducing chemical in marijuana. In April, an 11-year-old and 5-year-old in Utah were hospitalized after eating “Medicated Nerds Rope” candy that their families received as part of a food bank distribution program. And in May, a 6-year-old was rushed to the emergency room after eating a THC-containing gummy at a pool party in Florida.
“Exposure of marijuana products to children has increased since both medical and recreational marijuana has been legalized, especially in Colorado,” said Dr. Jim Cotter, an emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs.
“The most common overdose incidence in children occur when the drug has been combined with a food in an edible form of marijuana,” he added. “These edibles can have a higher dose of THC, the main psychoactive component in marijuana, and can have profound effects in children. Most of the time kids mistake these edibles ― gummy candies, brownies, lollipops ― for regular food and eat it unknowingly.”
Indeed, as more states legalize recreational marijuana, poison control centers have reported increases in the number of calls they receive regarding children who’ve ingested weed edibles. According to a research brief published in Pediatrics in 2021, the phenomenon occurs most commonly with 3- to 5-year-olds.
So, what should you do if you find your child in this situation? Below, Cotter and other doctors share their advice.
Know the signs.
Sometimes you might catch a child in the act of eating edibles, but often, the situation doesn’t become apparent until they start exhibiting signs.
“THC has more severe consequences for children than it does for adults,” said Dr. Kevin C. Osterhoudt, medical director of The Poison Control Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention.
He explained that children who eat THC edibles might start to lose their balance and act very sleepy or seem “out of it.”
“With big doses, children can become very ill and not breathe right, have seizures, and even go into a coma. It’s easy for children to get a big, big dose for their size,” he said. “THC edible products like gummies and cookies may contain large amounts of THC, and we frequently care for children who are believed to have eaten 100 to 800mg of THC!”
Dr. Candice Jones, a pediatrician in Orlando, Florida, noted that THC takes more time to take effect in edible form, compared to smoking or vaping, so it might take time to notice something is wrong.
“I’ve seen cases where parents rush the child to the ER, asking ‘Why is she asleep? I can’t wake her up. Something is wrong,’” she explained. “The THC is often highly concentrated in edibles, so kids who ingest it are getting a more potent form, and symptoms last longer.”
“If your child has an edible in their mouth, immediately take it out.” Cotter said. “Monitor for changes to your child’s behavior.”
Try to remain calm and focus on caring for your child. Osterhoudt recommended taking them to a safe, quiet place.
“Try to find out what type of edible the child ate, how much it looks like they ate, and any information on how much THC was in the edible,” he said. “Otherwise, call your poison control center at 1-800-222-1222 to talk to a nurse or a pharmacist expert and to get help.”
The poison control representative will likely ask a number of questions about your child’s state and how much THC they consumed and then advise on next steps.
“With big doses, children can become very ill and not breathe right, have seizures, and even go into a coma. It’s easy for children to get a big, big dose for their size.”
Seek professional treatment.
Poison control might recommend you take your child to the hospital or might even call 911 on your behalf. But if you notice your kid is exhibiting severe symptoms, you should bypass calling the helpline and immediately seek medical treatment.
“If a child is having trouble breathing, is unresponsive, or has a seizure, it is best to call 911,” Osterhoudt said.
At the hospital, doctors and nurses will check their vital signs and determine the best course of action.
“There is no antidote for THC intoxication,” Osterhoudt explained. “Doctors support severely poisoned children by making sure that they keep breathing and have enough blood sugar, and by making sure that they didn’t suffer any other injuries.”
Cotter noted that these patients might receive IV fluids for low blood pressure and/or supplemental oxygen in cases of more severe lethargy.
“In very rare instances, some children have developed coma and have needed to be placed on ventilators for respiratory support,” he said. “The duration of coma is typically one to two days and full recovery is expected with supportive care.”
Ensure it won’t happen again.
These incidents underscore the importance of safe storage when it comes to substances that could be harmful to children.
“Children are naturally curious and exploratory, they like to imitate the actions of grown-ups, and they act fast,” Osterhoudt said.
He advised against bringing THC edibles in homes that have young children, but if you must, there are important safety measures to follow.
“Don’t eat THC edibles in front of children,” Osterhoudt cautioned. “Store THC edibles in a secure place ― like a lockbox ― that is out of reach and out of sight of children. Never buy THC edibles that are made in counterfeit packages that look just like real candies.”
He suggested talking to family and friends about keeping their homes safe environments for children too, just as you would with guns.
Jones also recommended storing these products in a lockbox or safe and keeping them in their original packaging, which regulations typically require to be child-resistant (though there’s a push to make such requirements more stringent and widespread).
“Adults need to be responsible and only use these things during their own private time when they aren’t around their children,” she said. “And supervise your supply, so you notice if some is missing.”