Use of opioids by young people, both accidental and otherwise, resulted in more than 188,000 calls to U.S. Poison Control Centers from January 2000 through December 2015, averaging one call every 45 minutes, according to a newly published study.
Overall, most of the opioid exposures leading to those calls occurred among children younger than five years of age [60 percent] followed by teenagers [30 percent]. The medications that prompted the most calls were hydrocodone [29 percent], oxycodone [18 percent] and codeine [17 percent].
The reason for, and the severity of, the children’s exposures varied by age. Among young kids, the vast majority of the drugs were accidentally ingested, tended to have less serious outcomes and were able to be managed at home. Among teenagers, on the other hand, more than two-thirds of the exposures were intentional. Teens also were more likely to be admitted to a hospital and to experience serious outcomes than younger children – an especially alarming statistic the researchers noted was the more than 50 percent increase in the rate of suspected opioid-related suicides among teenagers during the 16-year study period.
One piece of good news is the study’s finding that the number of exposures to most prescription opioids has been steadily declining in recent years. However, a notable exception as far as calls to poison control centers are concerned is buprenorphine, a narcotic medication primarily used to treat people for addiction to heroin and opioids. While exposures to most other opioids have declined, pediatric buprenorphine exposures have risen, which is concerning given that nearly half of those exposures result in hospital admissions.
“As physicians, we need to find a balance between making sure that we are helping our patients manage their pain, and making sure we don’t prescribe more or stronger medication than they need,” said Dr. Gary Smith, the study’s senior author and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, which conducted the study. “While overall rates of exposure to opioids among children are going down, they are still too high. We need to continue to examine our prescription practices and to increase education to parents about safe ways to store these medications at home to keep them out of the hands of children.” Parents also need to be aware of keeping the drugs safe from teens, Smith added, given that 70 percent of teenagers who use opioids without a prescription get them from family or friends.