Purses: Fashion's Most Deadly Accessory

Erin Owen Tyler, MD, FAAP

February 21, 2020

Small towns like ours in rural Alabama have some interesting traditions. I have three daughters, and most of our childhood traditions were experienced from their perspective. One will be the topic of this essay. That would be, “The Purse Man.”

Every Friday during the spring, The Purse Man would display his wares on a prominent corner on one of our three main avenues of travel. Each Friday during Purse Season, my daughters would wake up begging to go there after school. At least once a month, my wife would cave and stop (with her own penchant for purses, this was as much for herself as for her daughters).

They would carefully look at all the styles, colors and shapes narrowing down the field until there were three. Then the negotiations began, first with the Purse Man to obtain the lowest cost; then with Mom to up the purse purchase limit from one to three and settling for two.

The purses were then happily carried to the car with dreams of how this accessory would transform an outfit into a complete fashion statement—all the while handily toting assorted “stuff.”

Yet, a purse’s contents rarely get such deliberate thought. That’s why, especially for families with young children, the purse is without question fashion’s most deadly accessory.

Hazards in a handbag

Think about how much fun a toddler might have exploring inside a purse, especially their parent’s. What likely started as a cute carrier with a few essentials before (pre-children), may have evolved into a dependable warehouse equipped to anticipate the needs of an entire family. For example:

Medications. Virtually every purse carried by an adult contains some type of medication. Over the course of my career, toddlers have ingested iron tablets and ibuprofen, which can result in renal failure; acetaminophen, which can lead to liver failure and coma; other pain meds such as hydrocodone, causing opioid overdose; and birth control pills, which prompts breast growth that is hard to explain for a 3-year-old. These children recovered, but a 2-year-old patient who found her grandmother’s heart pills did not. It took the girl seven days to die, and all we could do was walk that path with her.

Cosmetics. Lotions and cosmetics are another purse staple. Between 2002-2016, 64,686 children less than five years of age were seen in emergency departments for cosmetic related injuries. That is about 1 every 2 hours. Roughly 75% were ingestions (swallowed) and 19 percent were eye related. The top three culprits were nail polish, hair care products and skin care products.

Tobacco products. Cigarettes, nicotine gum and liquid nicotine for e-cigarettes or vaping devices carried in purses are a serious risk for children if ingested.

“These children recovered, but a 2-year-old patient who found her grandmother’s heart pills did not. It took the girl seven days to die, and all we could do was walk that path with her.”

Personal hygiene products. Especially during flu season, travel size hand sanitizers are a common find in purses. These, along with other personal hygiene products such as mouthwash, often contain concentrated alcohol, which can have toxic effects. Toothpaste can be dangerous to young children, too. Used in small amounts to brush teeth, it prevents tooth day, but when swallowed it can be toxic.

Choking hazards. Chewing gum, breath mints and cough drops often kept in purses can become lodged in a young child’s throat. Coins found in a wallet are also choking hazards and can seriously damage the digestive tract. The same goes for button batteries inside car key fobs.

Weapons. In some states, including my own, it’s not uncommon for people to carry guns and other weapons in purses. Heartbreaking news reports in recent years describe young children discovering a gun in a family member’s purse and shooting themselves and others.

As pediatricians, we advise families on keeping kids safe from common hazards found in the home. We should also remind them to keep potential hazards inside purses well out of reach of young children. The same holds true for those increasingly stylish backpacks, briefcases and diaper bags. Killer fashion should always be a metaphor.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

About the Author

Eric Owen Tyler, MD, FAAP

Eric Owen Tyler, MD, FAAP, an executive board member for the American Academy of Pediatrics Alabama Chapter, is a pediatrician with Pediatric Associates in Alexander City, Alabama.