• Article
  • February 14, 2017

Rate of Toddlers Hospitalized from Opioid Poisoning on the Rise

A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics indicates that between 1997 and 2012, the rates of children hospitalized from opioid poisoning increased. The study found while the hospitalization rates are high for adolescents, the rate of toddlers who were hospitalized more than doubled. Here's a closer look at the issue.

Why the increase in opioid poisoning among young adults and toddlers?

"It's exposure. Opioids are ubiquitous now," says Julie Gaither, Ph.D., M.P.H., RN, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale School of Public Health and the study's lead author. "Enough opioids are prescribed every year to put a bottle of painkillers in every household. They're everywhere, and kids are getting into them."

Children are more often finding their parent's medicine drawers, and as experts say, are taking the drugs because they think they are candy or a treat.

What are the long-term concerns?

Young adults who ingest opioids are at risk of addiction, and toddlers can face serious respiratory complications.

"Opioids cause respiratory suppression," says Sharon Levy, M.D., M.P.H., who directs the adolescent substance abuse program at Boston Children's Hospital and is an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. "If you're a 30-pound person and getting into the medication that was supposed to be for a 150-pound person, it's going to be a whopping dose."

What's the solution?

Doctors need to talk to patients about safe ways to store the drugs in their home and keep them out of children's reach. The study's authors also suggest doctors ask parents during well-child and well-baby visits about the child's risk of exposure to opioids. This discussion could be addressed while talking about other issues, such as water safety or if there is a gun in the house. 

Doctors can also encourage patients to properly dispose of unused pills that may still be stored where children or young adults can find them.

Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.