A new study finds that children are being poisoned by opioids, and a growing number of them in recent years are ending up in pediatric ICUs for lifesaving procedures.


An alarming number of children are being poisoned by opioids. That’s according to a new report out today in the scientific journal Clinical Toxicology. While the opioid epidemic has mostly affected young and middle-aged people, the new findings highlight the toll that prescription and illicit opioids are taking on children and adolescents. NPR’s Rhitu Chatterjee has more.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: The first time Megan Land encountered a child poisoned by an opioid was about three years ago. She had recently started working in the pediatric ICU at Emory University, where she’s a critical care fellow.

MEGAN LAND: This child had severe respiratory distress as a result of consuming a fentanyl patch.

CHATTERJEE: She has since treated more kids for opioid poisonings. The experience led her to do this new study, where she and her colleagues looked at records of calls made to poison control centers around the country between 2005 and 2018. Of the more than million cases of opioid poisonings spanning all age groups, Land says…

LAND: About 24% of them were children, which was surprising to me.

CHATTERJEE: While the overall number of children poisoned by opioids has declined since 2010, Land says a greater percentage of them have ended up in pediatric ICUs in recent years.

LAND: So the children that are being admitted to the hospitals seem to have more severe effects.

CHATTERJEE: Requiring more serious lifesaving interventions – the study also found that 90% of these poisonings happen in the children’s homes, and the youngest of children, up to age 4, and the oldest, 15 to 19, were the most affected.

JULIE GAITHER: There hasn’t been a lot of attention paid to children and adolescents just because they’ve been overshadowed for the most part by the sheer number of deaths in the adult population.

CHATTERJEE: That’s Julie Gaither at the Yale School of Medicine. Her own past research has shown that not only are children getting hospitalized due to opioid poisonings, many are dying as a result. Between 1999 and 2016, nearly 9,000 children and adolescents died from taking opioids. And Gaither says, the risk from opioids isn’t going away anytime soon.

GAITHER: They’re still going to remain in our home and that we all have a role to play in terms of storing opioids and making sure that kids and teens don’t have access to them.

CHATTERJEE: Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.


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