When you think of the opioid epidemic in this country, the first thing you probably think of is a strung-out addict, looking for his or her next fix, possibly ending up as another statistic when he or she eventually overdoses. What you probably don't realize is how this epidemic has been affecting America's children.
For one thing, the number of pediatric hospitalizations related to opioids and requiring intensive care has almost doubled in only three years (2012-2015), from about 800 patients between 2004 and 2007, to over 1,500 between 2012 and 2015. Researchers have also found that over 3,600 children were hospitalized for conditions related to opioids from 2004 to 2015, and nearly 43 percent of these children needed intensive care. Children aged 1 to 5 make up the highest percentage of hospitalizations, followed by children ages 12 to 17.
The problem in the case of the younger children is that opioids are being left out around the house, and the children think they are candy. They find the drugs on tables or countertops or, in some cases, on the floor. As for the 12 to 17-year-olds, these children are either looking to have some fun, or are contemplating suicide.
Medications should always be kept in child-proof containers that are closed properly between uses. They should be kept on high shelves or, preferably, in a locked cabinet if you have one. When a prescription medication is finished, it is supposed to be disposed of properly. The problem is that next to no one actually does this. They either throw the drugs into the regular garbage, where they are brought to the dump to disintegrate into the soil and leech into the drinking water, or they forget to throw them out.
In the latter case, the 12 to 17-year-olds – the age group more often interested in experimenting – will start with whatever they can find at home. While some drugs are dangerous even in small amounts, nearly every drug is dangerous if too much of it is taken at once. Acetaminophen, for example, is the number one cause of fatal overdose and irreversible damage when consumed in large quantities.
In addition to the two age groups already mentioned, newborns are increasingly being introduced to opioids while still in utero. As of now, the numbers remain unclear because states are inconsistent in their reports. However, it is safe to assume that whatever the numbers are, they are more than likely five times higher than they were 20 years ago.
Babies who are exposed to opioids while still in the womb are often born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, which is drug withdrawal experienced shortly after birth. In rare cases, babies born with NAS may not survive. Seizures and brain damage are also possible. More common, though, are the heartbreaking withdrawal symptoms like high-pitched crying, a failure to thrive, and irritability. Not all babies who are exposed to opiates in utero will develop NAS, but why risk it?
The surest way to protect children from the opioid epidemic is to find alternative methods to opioids for pain management. Failing that, if a patient still needs opioids to manage his or her pain, then s/he exercise caution by ensuring that no unused opioids are left within a child's reach.