Alarming new research shows that young children and teenagers are now more likely than ever before to be poisoned by opioid painkillers. Of course, these painkillers are often prescribed for other family members and, therefore, are more readily available for mistaken use or for misuse by children who probably don’t know the dangers.
According to a new study, the rate of children hospitalized for opioid poisoning has jumped 165 percent between 1997 to 2012; or from approximately 1.4 per 100,000 children to 3.71 per 100,000 children. Furthermore, in the six years that data has been available regarding mortality, 176 children have died.
Yale School of Public Health postdoctoral fellow Julie Gaither led the study. She explains, “Opioids are ubiquitous now. Enough opioids are prescribed every year to put a bottle of painkillers in every household. They’re everywhere, and kids are getting into them.”
In addition, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared the country is, in fact “in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic.” In the US, opioid deaths have nearly quadrupled since 1999, leading now to roughly 78 overdoses per day.
In regards to the study, though, the rate of toddlers hospitalized for opioid abuse has more than doubled: from 0.86 per 100,000 to 2.62 per 100,000. Experts suggest that perhaps these extremely young patients take the drugs because they might think they area candy; after all, opioids can be dispensed as a pill or in a form that resembles a lollipop.
Sharon Levy is the director of the adolescent substance abuse program at Boston Children’s Hospital explains that opioid abuse is “largely seen as an adolescent problem or an adult problem.” Also an associate professor of pediatrics with Harvard University Medical School, Levy notes, “But this paper really highlights that this really knows no age boundaries.”
She also advises that the long term health effects of opioid use in children are not clear. Of course, she does comment on the short term risks: “Opioids cause respiratory suppression. If you are a 30-pound person and getting into the medication that was supposed to be for a 150-pound person, it’s going to be a whopping dose for you.”
Altogether, then, Gaither concludes: “We’ve got to pay attention to children and the toll the opioid crisis is taking on them. Kids make up about a fourth of the U.S. population, and they’re suffering from this crisis, too.”