More Children are Overdosing on Prescription Meds That Wean People Off Opioids

Young American children are being sickened, and even dying, after being poisoned by a drug used to fight opioid addiction, according to a new report. Investigators reported that between 2007 and 2016, more than 11,000 emergency calls were made to U.S. poison control centers after a child or teen was exposed to buprenorphine, a powerful prescription medication that helps wean people off opioids.

The vast majority of calls (86 percent) involved children under the age of 6, and nearly all of those cases resulted from accidental exposure. Eleven of the children died, according to the report. Not all cases were purely accidental, however. Among those aged 13 to 19, three-quarters of the calls involved intentional usage of the drug, resulting in four deaths, the researchers said.

"Although buprenorphine is important for the treatment of opioid use disorder, pediatric exposure to this medication can result in serious adverse outcomes," said study author Dr. Gary Smith. The medication can cause extreme drowsiness and/or vomiting when taken improperly, he explained. What's more, Smith suggested that the scale of the problem may be larger than the current numbers suggest, given that "not all pediatric buprenorphine exposures are reported to poison control centers."

"Safe storage of all opioids, including buprenorphine, is crucial. Parents and caregivers who take buprenorphine need to store it safely: up, away, and out of sight. In a locked cabinet is best," Smith said. Health care providers could help, Smith said, by proactively discussing the issue and best-practice safety protocols with parents and caregivers of young children. And teens, Smith added, should be counseled on the risks involved when it comes to misusing drugs of this kind.

The study authors said that between 2005 and 2010, the annual number of patients who received a buprenorphine prescription rocketed up from 100,000 to more than 800,000. The new study analyzed information covering 2007 through 2016 from the National Poison Data System. Among poison center calls involving young children, 45 percent ended up with the child being taken to a health care center, and about one-fifth of the calls ultimately turned out to be serious medical situations.

For teens, a little more than one-fifth wound up being admitted to a hospital, and roughly the same percentage were serious cases. About one-quarter of the teens had been using other substances in addition to buprenorphine. And 150 cases were believed to be the result of a suicide attempt, the study authors said.

D. Christopher Garrett is senior media advisor with the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) office of communications. He said it's important to take steps to safeguard children, while stressing the need to continue encouraging those struggling with opioid addiction to get the best opioid treatment available.

"SAMHSA hopes all parents and guardians would exercise caution to prevent their children from being able to access all medication. Proper storage and disposal of all medications are essential to prevent harmful exposure to children," Garrett said.

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