Hospital admissions show the opioid crisis affects kids, too

toddler reaching for pills

More kids are suffering the consequences of opioid poisoning, an analysis of pediatric intensive care units shows.


As I’ve been reporting a story about the opioid epidemic, I’ve sorted through a lot of tragic numbers that make the astronomical spike in deaths and injuries related to the drugs feel more real.

The rise in the abuse of opioids — powerfully addictive painkillers — is driven by adults. But kids are also swept up in the current, a new study makes clear. The number of children admitted to pediatric intensive care units at hospitals for opioid-related trouble nearly doubled between 2004 and 2015, researchers report in the March Pediatrics.

Researchers combed through medical records from 46 hospitals around the United States, looking for opioid-related reasons for admission to the hospital. When the researchers looked at children who landed in pediatric intensive care units for opioid-related crises, the numbers were grim, nearly doubling. In the period including 2004 to 2007, 367 children landed in the PICU for opioid-related trouble. In the period including 2012 to 2015, that number was 643.  (From 2008 to 2011, 554 kids were admitted to the PICU for opioid-related illnesses.)

Most opioid-related hospital admissions were for children ages 12 to 17, the researchers found. The available stats couldn’t say how many of those events were accidental ingestions versus intentional drug use. (Though for older kids, there’s a sliver of good news from elsewhere: Prescription opioid use among teenagers is actually down, a recent survey suggests.)

But about a third of the hospitalizations were for children younger than 6. And among these young kids, about 20 percent of the poisonings involved methadone, a drug that’s used to treat opioid addiction. That means that these young kids are getting into adults’ drugs (illicit or prescribed) and accidentally ingesting them.

Lots of parents don’t store their prescription opioid painkillers safely away from their young children, a survey last year suggests. Drugs, prescription or otherwise, should be kept out of sight and out of reach, ideally locked away. Some kids are great climbers, and some are crafty bottle openers who can, with persistence, work around supposedly child-resistant packaging. 

These are tips for everyone living with small kids — not just those who may have opioids in the house. Children are curious, persistent and, sadly, extra vulnerable to powerful drugs, which means that we should all do our best to keep them away from these potentially dangerous drugs.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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