The opioid epidemic that has broken out in the United States in the last several decades has recently taken a turn for the worse; opioid poisoning is now affecting increasing numbers of children and youth.
According to a recent study from the JAMA Network, pediatric hospitalizations for opioid poisonings increased by nearly two hundred percent from 1997 to 2012. In other words, children and youth became nearly twice as likely to be hospitalized for an overdose from opioid medication. Clearly, there is a rising problem in children and opioid poisoning, but how does this relate to the opioid epidemic in the United States and what can be done about it? These are the questions this brief post aims to address.
What is the Opioid Epidemic in the United States?
“Beginning in the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies selling high-dose opioids seized upon a notion, based on flimsy scientific evidence, that regardless of the length of treatment, patients would not become addicted to opioids… How did we get this so wrong? FDA has responsibility, the pharmaceutical companies have responsibility, physicians have responsibility. We didn’t see these drugs for what they truly are.”
~ Dr. David A. Kessler
The opioid epidemic in the United States refers to the sharp increase in prescription opioids starting just two decades ago, before the addictive nature of opioids was truly understood. As a result, addiction to prescription medication is an ongoing – and even increasing – issue in the United States. Some of the statistics regarding opioid misuse show this disturbing reality:
- Over 47,000 Americans died as a result of overdose in 2014, the vast majority from opioids
- In the fifteen years between 1999 and 2014, opioid sales quadrupled
- In 2014, close to thirty thousand people in the United States died as a direct result of opioid overdose
There is no question that the situation is serious. In fact, former US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has called the opioid epidemic an “urgent health crisis” facing the United States: “Many clinicians have told me they weren’t aware of just how bad the problem had gotten. Many were not aware of the connection between the epidemic and prescribing habits.” But how has this opioid epidemic affected children and youth, as the study mentioned above highlights?
How is Opioid Poisoning Reaching Children and Youth?
The study from the JAMA Network examined the rate of hospitalizations due to opioid poisoning among youth aged 1 through 19 over the course of 1997 to 2012. Altogether, the study found that the annual rate of this subset of hospitalizations rose by 165 percent. Most strikingly, the report also found that most cases of opioid poisoning occurred by accident among children under the age of ten.
In addition to these accidental overdoses among young children, there was a high rate of both accidental overdose and suicide attempts among teens in the study.
“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. Prescription opioid medications are often used to get high, just like they would use any recreational drug.”
~ Julie Gaither, study co-author
Opioid addiction and overdose is most commonly seen as an issue that only affects adults. This stems from the fact that the vast majority of opioid prescriptions are for adults, rather than adolescents or children. However, the fact that the rate of hospitalization in children and teens has nearly doubled shows how much the opioid epidemic in the United States truly affects the younger population.
Particularly troubling is that out of all the trends highlighted in the study, the rate hospitalizations due to opioid poisoning rose the sharpest among very young children, with ages from 1 to 4. For these children, the incidence rose by over two hundred percent.
What Can We Do to Help the Issue of Children and Opioid Poisoning?
The study discussed here, as well as many other research findings, make it clear that the opioid epidemic in the United States is a serious issue that must be addressed at both the policy and personal level.
“When you look at the staggering statistics in terms of lives lost, productivity impacted, costs to communities, but most importantly, cost to families from this epidemic of opioids abuse, it has to be something that is right up there at the top of our radar screen. I think the public doesn’t fully appreciate yet the scope of the problem.”
~ President Barack Obama at the 2016 National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit
One of the best ways to decrease the impact of opioid poisoning is to change the prevailing attitudes toward opioid medication. Moving forward, consider adopting and sharing the following standpoints:
- Opioid medication should not be considered a routine way to address pain
- Opioid medication should be given in the smallest dose possible and for the shortest amount of time possible
- Opioid medication should never be self-prescribed
- Opioid medication should be kept in a safe space, well out of the reach of children to avoid opioid poisoning
In short, changing the prevailing perspective on the normalcy of opioid medication can help reduce the prevalence of opioid poisoning around the United States.