Startling increase in opioid poisonings among young people

November 1, 2016 Providence Health Team

More people than ever are being prescribed a class of medications called opioid analgesics to manage their pain – and increasingly, through misuse, improper storage or disposal, the drugs are falling into the hands of young children and adolescents.

That’s led to a startling increase in opioid poisonings among young people, according to a study of hospital discharge records by a group of researchers from the Yale University School of Medicine.

The researchers found roughly twice as many children and adolescents were hospitalized for opioid poisoning in 2012 as there were in 1997.

The biggest increase occurred in children ages 1 to 4, who were thought to have obtained the drugs accidentally.

The second-biggest increase was in adolescents 15 to 19. In this case, most of the kids were attempting to hurt or kill themselves, the researchers say.

Regulators, parents, marketers and pharmaceutical companies must act to reduce the number of hospitalizations, they say.

What are opioids?

Opioids are frequently prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. Common opioids include:

  • Oxycodone, brand name OxyContin
  • Hydrocodone, or Vicodin
  • Morphine
  • Methadone

Sometimes, in cases of severe pain, providers will prescribe fentanyl, which is a potent synthetic opioid pain reliever.

In addition to the risk of poisoning by overdose or misuse, side effects of opioids include:

  • Increasing tolerance for the drug, meaning you might need to take more to get the same relief
  • Physical dependence and addiction, meaning you might experience withdrawal symptoms when the drug wears off
  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Nausea
  • Depression
  • Sleepiness and dizziness
  • Lowered levels of testosterone

Safeguarding and safely disposing of prescription drugs

In an effort to stem the rising tide of opioid poisonings, public health agencies have sought to reduce the number of prescriptions being offered by health care providers. And agencies such as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the Food and Drug Administration are leading initiatives intended to keep opioids from falling into the hands of children.

The agencies advise people with unwanted medicines to turn them into DEA-authorized collectors, a list of which can be found at the DEA website. (Providence is one of the authorized collectors of unwanted medicines.) The agencies also sponsor “drug take-back days” for people to get rid of their unused prescriptions.

If you don’t have access to a collection site, the FDA suggests:

  • Follow specific disposal instructions, if provided on the drug labeling. Do not flush the drugs down the toilet or rinse them down the sink unless specifically instructed to do so.
  • Remove medicines from their original containers and mix them with something undesirable, such as coffee grounds or kitty litter.
  • Place the mixture in a sealable bag or other container to prevent leakage.
  • Scratch out any identifying information on prescription labels before throwing the original containers away.

The study’s authors say it will take a multi-pronged effort to reduce the number of opioid poisonings among young people.

“Poisonings by prescription and illicit opioids are likely to remain a persistent and growing problem in the young unless greater attention is directed toward the pediatric community, who make up nearly one-quarter of the US population,” the authors wrote. “A combination of public health interventions (e.g., parental education), policy initiatives, and consumer-product regulations is needed to reduce pediatric exposure to opioids.”

For more information

If you are experiencing pain, talk to your health care provider about whether a prescription medication is the best way to treat it. You can find a Providence provider here.

The study, “National Trends in Hospitalizations for Opioid Poisonings Among Children and Adolescents, 1997 to 2012,” was published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a considerable amount of information at its “Opioid Overdose” resource page.

The Food and Drug Administration provides guidance about the disposal of unused prescription medicines, such as opioid pain relievers.

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