Opioids have been prescribed to children on an alarmingly frequent basis, according to a new study published in the medical journal Pediatrics.The research showed that 1 in 10 children enrolled in Tennessee’s Medicaid program between 1999 and 2014 were prescribed an opioid pain medication.
These prescriptions were all given to children without “severe” conditions. In total, 1.3 million-plus opioid prescriptions were written to Tennessee children over the 15-year period.
This statistic follows the national trend, though both this study and current research into adult opioid prescriptions indicate that the number of prescriptions has fallen in more recent years. In particular, total opioid prescriptions declined by more than 5 percent in all 50 states last year. The study in Tennessee found that children’s opioid prescriptions started to decline starting in 2009.
While this decline is encouraging, the shocking number of opioid prescriptions that continue to be written yearly leaves us with more work to do.
Why were children prescribed so many opioids? The largest culprit, according to the study in Tennessee, was dental procedures, accounting for 31.1 percent of all opioid prescriptions to children in the study. Outpatient surgery made up another 25 percent, followed by trauma and minor infections.
Half the patients in the study that were prescribed narcotic medication were between 12 and 17 years old. This vulnerable age group is at risk due to the capability of the developing brain to be influenced in decision-making processes.
“Although children and adolescents ˂18 years of age constitute one-quarter of the US population, the controversy regarding opioid analgesics has been largely restricted to adults,” reads the study in Pediatrics.
With so little being known about opioids and their long-term effects on children, the statistics surrounding their use in minor outpatient settings is more than worrisome. Another recent study using IBM MarketScan commercial and Medicaid pharmacy claims data found that teens’ days’ supply of prescription opioids often exceeds three days—the recommended dosage by the CDC for acute pain.
That same study also saw a small increase in one-day prescription fills for teens, which is positive news, as such prescriptions indicate a safer and more responsible approach to prescribing.
While the opioid epidemic can affect children directly, there are also multiple other influences that can indirectly affect our younger population. One of these factors is exposure to the opioid medication buprenorphine.
Also published in Pediatrics,the new study found over 11,200 calls were made to Poison Control centers regarding children’s exposure to the opioid medication, which is often used in the treatment of opioid use disorder in an attempt to wean the user from narcotics.
Eighty-six percent of the calls made to Poison Control centers were regarding children under the age of six. The exposure rate per 1 million children to this drug has grown exponentially in recent years—most recently increasing by 8.6 percent in 2016.
In teens, however, many of the exposures to buprenorphine were intentional. Seventy-seven percent had access to the drug and intentionally ingested it, meaning that someone in the teen’s home likely had a prescription for the drug.
As the opioid epidemic continues to affect our nation’s youth population in different ways, we must work actively to educate them on the dangers of opioid misuse and addiction. School age children should have access to drug education programs that are informative and age-appropriate, and teachers and parents must be involved in prevention through creating a dialogue that gives children a space to ask questions.
As children are exposed to drugs and alcohol at increasingly tender ages, it is critical that we meet them with understanding and openness, with a strong focus on the facts.
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