There is a recent discussion in healthychildren.org about drug overdoses, primarily opioid overdose. The American Academy of Pediatrics is dedicated to treating and preventing opioid use disorder that will help to assure a happy, healthy childhood.
Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. This is double the number that occurred between 1999 and 2015. This is more than car accidents, more than falls and more than homicides. Opioids are the main force behind this epidemic which affects all ages and communities everywhere.
Opioids are a category of highly addictive narcotic drugs that include prescription pain medicine and illegal substance like heroin. They are products, or synthetic versions, of the opium produced in small amounts by poppy plants. Large doses can slow the body’s heart and breathing rate to the point of stopping completely. Opioid overdoses were involved in more than 33,000 deaths in 2015, and nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid.
Commonly misused prescription opioid drugs are the following: oxycodone, fentanyl, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine.
Opioids cause a temporary “high” by creating artificial endorphins which are hormones normally made in the body to decrease pain. Continued opioid use makes the brain stop making its own endorphins and build up a tolerance. This causes people to take increasingly higher doses to feel good and to avoid severe, flu-like withdrawal symptoms.
Addiction doesn’t care. Opioid misuse harms children and teens in many ways. Families may be broken apart when a parent is arrested. Parents who are addicted often neglect their children. There has been a fivefold increase in the number of babies born addicted since 2000. These infants face long hospital stays and are likely to be low birthweight, have respiratory complications, feeding difficulties and developmental problems. These have long, lifetime consequences.
Children and teens hospitalized for opioid poisoning has tripled between 1997 and 2012. While most of the overdose patients were teens, the largest overall increase in poisonings was among toddlers and preschoolers. This is felt to be part of the neglectful parenting seen in opioid addicted parents.
What can a parent do? Talk to your children. Make sure they know sharing opioids is a felony crime punishable with jail time. Surveys show that two-thirds of teens who misuse prescription painkillers got them from friends, family members and acquaintances.
Keep opioids and other prescription medicine in a secure place. Count and monitor the number of pills you have and lock them up. Ask your friends, family members and baby sitters to do the same. Return leftover opioid prescriptions to a hospital, doctor’s office or pharmacy.
Ask your doctor for alternatives to opioids for pain relief. There are nonaddictive medications that can be just as effective such as ibuprofen and naproxen.
If you think that you or your child may be misusing opioid drugs, ask for help. If you think someone has overdosed, call 911. Ask your pediatrician about Naloxone which can prevent overdose deaths.
Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.