Opioids are sending more kids to the hospital

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Thousands of children are hospitalized annually for prescription opioid poisonings, and in recent years, hospitalization rates have nearly doubled. Toddlers and older teens are particularly at risk.

The findings, published in JAMA Pediatrics, are based on a review of hospital discharge records over a 16-year period and show the impact of the prescription opioid crisis on children and the need for strategies to address it.

opioid poisoning chart
Estimates of trends in hospitalizations for prescription opioid poisonings by age. (Credit: JAMA Network, American Medical Association via Yale)

Prescription opioids include common painkillers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl. In adults, the growing use and abuse of these drugs are linked to a rise in hospitalizations for opioid poisonings.

To gauge the effect these trends have on children, researchers conducted a comprehensive analysis of hospitalizations attributed to opioid poisonings in children and adolescents.

Higher risk of death with opioids than other painkillers

The team analyzed data from the Kids’ Inpatient Database, a national source that compiles data on children admitted to US hospitals, examining discharge records for patients aged 1 to 19 who were hospitalized for opioid poisonings. Using data from 1997 to 2012, they identified more than 13,000 such records.

Hospitalizations for opioid poisonings in children rose significantly during the period studied, with the greatest increases seen in the youngest kids and the oldest teens.

“Over 16 years, poisonings from prescription opioids in children and teens increased nearly twofold,” says first author Julie Gaither of Yale University. “Those most vulnerable to opioid exposure were children ages 1 to 4 and 15 to 19. In toddlers and preschoolers, rates more than doubled over time.”

Prescription opioid poisonings among children less than 10 years of age were primarily of an accidental nature, but among older teens, suicidal intent was the primary cause.

A silver lining in the data is that hospitalizations among older teens did decrease slightly in the most recent years, Gaither says. “For 15 to 19 year olds, we saw a slight decrease, 7 percent, in hospitalizations from 2009 to 2012.”

Despite this decrease, Gaither says “the take-home message is that prescription opioid poisonings are likely to remain a growing problem among children unless greater attention is directed toward the pediatric community.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse supported the work.

Source: Yale University