Pain Pills and Kids: Hidden Opioid Dangers in Your Home

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Young children tend to get into their parents’ medicine stash accidentally, though there is an increasing number of teenagers who are intentionally abusing opioids, according to a recent report.

Much has been written in the past few years about the growing crisis of opioid addiction in the United States— especially after celebrities such as Prince and Heath Ledger died from overdosing on the prescription painkillers. But a new report in the journal Pediatrics has uncovered an alarming ripple effect of the epidemic: children and teens who are poisoned by opioids they find in their parents’ medicine cabinets.

According to the report, which examined the records of poison-control centers across the country since 2000, nearly 12,000 American children are exposed to opioids (including hydrocodone, codeine, oxycodone, morphine, methadone, buprenorphine, fentanyl, and several others) each year, sometimes fatally. “Here in Indiana, we’ve seen the same thing people are seeing across the U.S.—an increase in kids getting into these medications,” says Blake Froberg, MD, a pediatrician and emergency medicine physician at Indiana University Health.

Young children tend to get into their parents’ medicine stash accidentally, though there is an increasing number of teenagers who are intentionally abusing opioids, according to the report. There has also been an increase in the rate of opioid-related suspected suicides among teenagers over the years covered in the study.

The risks with small children taking even one pill can be very serious, says Dr. Froberg. “The most common effect you see with opiate or opioid syndrome is sedation—the child will get very sleepy, almost to the point of being unresponsive,” he explains. “Their pupils will also get very small, but the most serious concern is respiratory depression—in some cases the child even might stop breathing.”

If you have any prescription painkillers in your home (perhaps after dental surgery or a serious injury), Dr. Froberg recommends you take these precautions to keep them out of the hands and mouths of your children:

1.      “Treat the medicine like any other dangerous object you might have in the house by keeping it in a locked cabinet or box,” Dr. Froberg says. He adds that while a child-proof bottle can act as a deterrent, children can still manage to open them, so you should never leave the medicine in reach. A fishing-tackle type box with a lock is a safe alternative.

2.      Once you are done with your prescription, carefully dispose of any unused pills. “You can bring it back to your pharmacy, and they should have a safe way to dispose of the medication,” says Dr. Froberg.

3.      Have open conversations with your tweens and teens about the dangers of abusing both illegal drugs and prescription pills. “Involve your family doctor or pediatrician, who can discuss the potential medical consequences of taking these drugs,” advises Dr. Froberg.

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