Opioid Crisis Linked to Rise in Children Being Hospitalized for Painkiller Poisonings Especially After Attempting Suicide, Study Reveals

Research has revealed the number of children needing hospital treatment because of opioid poisonings⁠—including cases linked to suicide⁠—has risen in the past decade or so.

The number of young people aged 0 to 19 years old being poisoned by opioids has decreased since 2010, but the proportion of suspected suicides and cases that needed critical care treatment increased between 2005 and 2018.

Experts in pediatric medicine who conducted the study told Newsweek more needs to be done to identify children with mental health issues, and help them and their families to access the right services.

The team looked at data from all 55 poison centers in the U.S. that make up the National Poison Data System, collected between January 1, 2005 and December 31, 2018. This time period was split into three eras: 2005 to 2009; 2010 to 2014; and 2015 to 2018.

Most children were exposed to opioids at home, at 90 percent of cases, according to the research published in the journal Clinical Toxicology. The South saw the most incidents in the U.S., accounting for 40 percent, followed by 24 percent in the West, 23 percent in the Midwest, and 11 percent in the Northeast.

During that entire period, there were 1,002,947 cases of opioid poisonings—both serious and less so⁠—in the U.S., with 207,543, or 27 percent, involving children.

The percentage of children who went to critical care increased during each era, from 6.6 percent in 2005 to 2009; 8.5 percent in 2010 to 2014; and 9.6 percent from 2015 to 2018. Patients with a suicidal intent when taking the painkillers also rose, from 14 percent in the first era to 21 percent in 2015 to 2018.

Patients were most likely to need monitoring and interventions in pediatric intensive care if they had taken fentanyl, methadone, and heroin, the data showed.

Senior author Dr. Jocelyn Grunwell and lead author Dr. Megan Land of Pediatric Critical Care at Emory School of Medicine told Newsweek that despite efforts to limit and monitor access to prescription opioids, the proportion of serious hospital admissions for poisonings due to the painkillers, especially following attempted suicide, is increasing.

They said the study was limited because the database couple be incomplete or contain errors, and reporting incidents is voluntary so there may be an underestimation of opioid poisonings. In addition, the investigators didn't have access to the poison center phone transcripts which provide more detail on cases.

"Much of the research on the opioid crisis has focused on the impact to adults; however, children and adolescents in the U.S. are also negatively affected by the opioid epidemic," Land and Grunwell said.

"Parents, pediatricians, and teachers need to be alert to the risk of self-harm, misuse, and abuse of opioids in children and adolescents, remove or restrict access to opioids, and seek mental health services for children and adolescents at risk for self-harm and opioid abuse," they said.

"The hope is that this study highlights the need for advocacy efforts for effective policy changes that can improve identification of children with mental health issues and help these children and their families gain access to mental health services to prevent suicide attempts due to opioids," the pair added.
"We also hope that the study highlights the importance of restricting children's access to opioids that are present in the home," said Land and Grunwell.

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A stock image shows a child with a pill in their mouth. Getty