At a time when opioid use in adults has reached epidemic proportions, a new study is now warning that children are becoming “secondary victims” and hospitals are seeing record numbers of under 18’s being admitted due to overdoses. It’s estimated that a total of 42,000 people died from opioid overdose in 2016 in the US. Worryingly, around 300 of them were children.

With the rising numbers of adults being treated for opioid addiction, it’s feared that the increase we’ve seen can be put down to children accidentally taking their parents medication. The study found that the total number of children who were admitted to hospital and pediatric intensive care units due to an opioid overdose has nearly doubled since 2004, from 797 to 1504.

The oldest children in the study, who were aged 12 to 17 accounted for over 60% of the hospital admissions. Children aged 1 to 5 were the second most likely, making up a third of cases. The vast majority of cases in young children are down to children accidentally taking their parents medication like methadone or oxycodone. However, in the older age group it’s unclear how many of the cases were intentional.

Dr. Jason Kane, an associate professor of pediatrics and critical care at Comer Children’s Hospital in Chicago and a lead author on the study said: “Children accidentally getting into medications is not a new phenomenon. But this is probably a reflection of the massive amount of drugs — opioid drugs — that are available to children in the community.

“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. The thing that was a bit striking is that in the youngest children, those under six years of age, 20% of the ingestions were of methadone. So you sort of have to ask yourself: where are they getting all this methadone from?”

Dr. Rajesh Daftary, medical director of the pediatric emergency department at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, who was not involved in the study added: “I think this confirms what we have suspected and what we’ve been seeing in our emergency departments. Overall, we’re seeing increased exposure to opioids by children. I think there are a couple of things we can take from that.”

“Overall, I would agree with the findings of the study that we’re probably getting better at taking care of these patients.One of the questions I might have is that when we say they are exposed, that doesn’t really tell me the severity of the opiate exposure, meaning there might be more children having minor exposures who are presenting to emergency departments and getting admitted.”

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