Opioid poisonings and overdoses sending more children to hospitals, study says

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Experts at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health say they are saddened, but not surprised by a new study that shows an increasing number of children who were sent to hospitals for opioid poisonings or overdoses.

The study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, surveyed 31 U.S. hospitals and examined three four-year periods between 2004 and 2015. From 2004 to 2007, 797 child hospital visits were reported. From 2008 to 2011, 1,346 child hospital visits were reported. From 2012 to 2015, 1,504 child hospital visits were reported.

“The more prescriptions, then the more those medications are going to be out there,” said Pediatric Toxicologist, Dr. Blake Froberg. “They explore their environment. If they find something they don’t understand the danger sometimes, and can get into one of these medications.”

According to the study, most young children required hospitalization after discovering prescription painkillers and ingesting them without knowing they were harmful. Older kids, ages 12 to 17, were more likely to deliberately ingest opioids as a form of experimentation. The opioids cited in the cases ranged from prescription painkillers to heroin and methadone.

Dr. Froberg says symptoms of opioid poisonings or overdoses include a child seeming sleepy or unresponsive. The drug can also depress the body’s drive to breathe. He says children who are brought in to a hospital quickly can usually be treated successfully.

“We can give them medications like naloxone to reverse symptoms, or give them oxygen and what I would say is good supportive care until the medication is out of their system,” Froberg said.

But, Froberg says, children who are not brought in right away can suffer serious consequences.

“Those patients can come in very sick because they’ve gone for a long period of time without oxygen,” he said.

Robin Parsons, Chief Clinical Officer at Fairbanks Addiction Treatment Center, says she’s also not surprised at the increased number of child hospitalizations.

“It’s certainly not uncommon for the people we treat here, the adults we treat here, to have children in their home,” Parsons said. “They are parents.”

Parsons says the study shows the importance of keeping opioids out of the hands of children by locking them up, or via initiatives like drug take-back programs.

“Kids will experiment and they will potentially get their hands on them and it’s poison,” Parsons said.

Despite the increased number of cases, the study also shows child deaths from opioid exposure have declined in recent years. Dr. Froberg says that could be a result of increased awareness about the prevalence of opioids, and more emergency responders with access to naloxone. He also hopes more responsible prescribing practices and laws will start to bring the number of child hospitalizations down in the years to come.