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Study Shows Rise in Pediatric Opioid Poisonings and Deaths

As the nation’s battle with opioid addiction continues to ravage entire communities, there’s been scant reporting on how the epidemic’s touched the lives of children.

In a recent study, however, researchers examined 15 years of data from children’s hospitals and found that children are suffering right alongside adults.

Pediatric Child Opioid Poisonings

The opioid crisis affects everyone, and we need to pay better attention to the impact it’s had on children,” Julie Gaither, lead researcher and postdoctoral fellow at Yale School of Medicine, told CBS News. “Our study shows they have suffered hard from this epidemic.”

Published late October in JAMA Pediatrics, Gaither and her fellow researchers discovered that among children, rates of poisoning and overdoses doubled from 1997 to 2012.

In all, the team identified more than 13,000 cases in that time. While hospitalization for opioids ran higher among older kids, those in their late teens, the highest percentage increase during these years were toddlers and preschoolers.

What is the Rate of Increase in Opioid Poisoning Among Children and Teens?

  • Children 1 to 4 years old saw a 205 percent increase in opioid poisonings
  • Teens between the ages of 15 to 19 experienced a 176 percent increase in opioid poisonings
  • Overall, there’s been 165 percent increase in prescription opioid poisonings and overdoses in children 19 years old and younger
  • Heroin overdoses rose 161 percent among teens during this time
  • Methadone poisonings rose a staggering 950 percent

Exposure to opioids in children comes with the overall increase in painkillers provided to adults by their physicians.

Though poisonings are more likely to be happenstance in younger kids, the Drug Enforcement Administration reports 10 percent of teenagers – one in every ten – admits to the non-medical use of opioids, medications like OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet. A move to heroin, which is cheaper and, in some cases, easier to obtain, is often the result.

What Can Parents Do to Keep Children Safe From Accidental Prescription Medication Poisoning?

Rather than holding on to pain medication when it’s no longer needed, experts suggest proper disposal of pills, especially for families with little kids or teenagers.

Most cities also sponsor drug disposal programs, like the DEA’s National Drug Take-Back Day, which is held annually. This is an easy and convenient method for keeping the house free of potentially deadly narcotics.

“Any medicine that is left out is toddler-friendly – they’re going to put it in their mouths,” Dr. Barbara Pena, research director of the emergency department at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, told CBS News.

In August 2015, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of OxyContin for kids aged 11 to 16, primarily for use in pediatric cancer patients. There are also other painful diseases children deal with that require narcotic painkillers.

But Dr. Pena notes, parents should question doctors prescribing opioids for something like back pain or other injuries. There are other non-narcotic pain relievers that physicians can try first.

For parents who discover their child is using opiates, prescription or otherwise, research shows that earlier interventions are more successful.

Opioid dependency is treatable, but prevention is far less painful and disruptive than battling the fully developed disease of addiction.


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