As if there weren’t enough tragedy surrounding opioid drugs, a new study in the journal Pediatrics found that over 47% of all child poisoning deaths in the U.S. involve opioids. By contrast, over-the-counter allergy, cold, and pain medications were involved in just 15% of child poisoning deaths.
“There are hundreds or thousands of potentially dangerous substances for children in our environment, but we’re really seeing that one stand out,” says the study’s lead author.
The study considered 731 deaths of children five and younger that were reported to the National Center for Fatality Review and Prevention between 2005 and 2018. It also found that the number of child poisoning deaths involving opioids grew dramatically over that period. In 2005, opioids accounted for 24% of fatal child poisonings. In 2018, they accounted for 52%.
Fatal child poisonings are down overall, but the rise in opioid deaths is worrisome
The good news is that, since the passage of the federal Poison Prevention Packaging Act in 1970, fatal poisonings among children have dramatically decreased overall. That law requires child-resistant packaging on potentially poisonous substances, including many prescription drugs.
Unfortunately, child-resistant packaging is not a perfect solution, especially when opioid drugs are widely available on the black market. People who have become addicted may bring street drugs into the house with no such packaging. In other cases, people become so familiar with the drug that they underestimate the danger of an accidental exposure.
According to NBC News, in recent years there has been a rise in young children dying after accidental exposure to fentanyl.
Tragically, the new study found that most of the fatal child poisonings occurred in infants. The majority of the deaths happened at home while the child was under the supervision of a parent.
It is essential for anyone who uses opioids for any amount of time to consider the risk to children. If there is any chance a child will be in your home, store opioids “out of reach, out of sight, out of mind, preferably behind a closed and locked cabinet,” according to the study’s lead author.
He added that everyone in the home should be trained on how to recognize an opioid overdose and should have access to Naloxone, brand name Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse opioid overdoses.
It is also essential for health care providers to be aware that accidental poisonings do happen and are potentially fatal.
Are the benefits worth the risks?
According to the CDC, over 564,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses from 1999 to 2020. There is preliminary evidence that those numbers have increased further in 2021 and 2022.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors have flooded the nation with opioids, illegal suppliers aside. Doctors are still routinely prescribing opioids for pain even though, as this study’s author suggested, they are better kept locked away.
There is substantial evidence that some of these drug companies knew the risks. All around the country, state attorneys general, including Tennessee’s, have sued opioid manufacturers and distributors for the harm they have caused. Many of those cases have settled for millions and tens of millions of dollars.
Yet the drugs continue to harm people. The next time you wonder if you need an opioid prescription, consider the lengths you will need to go to protect your children. Consider the risk of addiction. Consider carefully and discuss the issues with your doctor.