While adults are the primary victims of overdose from opioid drugs like oxycodone and heroin, the US opioid crisis is putting more and more children in the hospital, too, suggests a new study published Monday in Pediatrics. And many kids are likely getting the drugs from their parents’ own supply.
Researchers pored through the Pediatric Health Information System (PHIS) database, which records admissions made to 49 children’s hospitals across 27 states. From 2004 to 2015, they found, 3,647 children were hospitalized for opioid overdose across 31 hospitals. Nearly half of these patients, 1,564 children, required a stay in the pediatric intensive care unit, while 116 tragically died. Hospitalizations between 2012 to 2015 (1,504) were almost twice as high as those between 2004 to 2007 (797), and the absolute number of hospitalizations requiring intensive care doubled between 2004 and 2015.
“In this study, we demonstrate a significant and steady increase in the diagnosis of opioid ingestion and poisoning across all age groups in US children’s hospitals from 2004 to 2015,” the authors wrote. “Not only did the absolute number of opioid-related admissions increase but the rate of both hospital and PICU admissions increased as well.”
Breaking it down further, the majority of the overdoses involved children between 12 and 17 years old. But one-third also involved children under the age of six. Teenagers were more likely to be reported as having ingested heroin or other addictive prescription painkillers, while more young children were reported to have ingested methadone, an opioid mainly used to stave off withdrawal and craving symptoms.
“When they come in, they’re going to fall into one of two categories: either they’re teenagers with intentional or drug-seeking behavior because of recreational or self-injurious behavior, or they’re kids who got into their parents’ medication,” lead author Jason Kane, a pediatrician at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital, told CNN. “The thing that was a bit striking is that in the youngest children, those under six years of age, 20 percent of the ingestions were of methadone. So you sort of have to ask yourself: where are they getting all this methadone from?”
Given the data they used, though, the authors can’t be sure which percentage of cases were accidental poisonings as opposed to intentional use, nor where the drugs came from.
On the slightly brighter side, hospitals have seemingly gotten better at handling these cases. The overall mortality rate dropped by more than half, from 2.8 percent in 2004 to 1.3 percent in 2015; children were less likely to require the use of a ventilator; and the median cost of hospitalization along with the length of stay dropped as well. The rate of opioid-related hospitalizations among children has also appeared to steady since around 2010, but the danger to children remains.
“Current efforts to reduce prescription opioid use in adults have not curtailed the incidence of pediatric opioid ingestion, and additional efforts are needed to reduce preventable opioid exposure in children,” the authors wrote.
It’s estimated that over 42,000 Americans died of an opioid overdose in 2016, while 2.1 million had an opioid use disorder.