One Prescription Opiate Can Kill A ChildOct 21, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
According to a recent report from the nation’s poison control centers, prescription drug use is endangering the lives of young children who accidentally ingest powerful painkillers. Nearly 10,000—9,179—toddlers and children age six age were exposed to medications such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, and methadone between January 2003 and June 2006, according to a report published last month in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. Exposures ranged from a pill being “snatched quickly” from a child’s mouth to full ingestion, said Dr. Richard C. Dart, medical director for the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center in Denver, and report co-author.
The study revealed that eight children died, 43 suffered life-threatening injuries or serious disabilities, and 214 required prolonged medical treatment. “For opioids, really, one pill is enough,” said Dart. “One pill can kill or at least cause major effects.” Prescription drugs are the second highest cause of childhood poisonings, with only monoxide poisonings claiming more victims, said Dart.
The study utilized data from the Researched Abuse, Diversion, and Addiction-Related Surveillance (RADARS) system and likely underestimates true figures, Dart added, because not all poison control centers participate in RADARS and not all exposures are reported. “Conservatively, you can say the number is twice that high and probably higher than that,” Dart said. “I knew we would find something, but I was stunned.”
Experts believe the increase in such accidents is due to the increasing use of legal and illegal prescription painkillers. In the US, 119 million hydrocodone prescriptions were written in 2007, an increase from 112 million the prior year, according to figures from IMS Health, a healthcare information and consulting company. Prescriptions for variations of oxycodone exceeded 38 million, up from 34 million. In 2007, approximately 5.2 million people aged 12 and older used prescription pain relievers for non-medical purposes according to the federal Office of Applied Studies.
Deaths caused by unintentional drug poisonings increased by nearly 70 percent between 1999 and 2004, according to a report last year from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which attributed most increases to prescription painkiller overdoses. “I think what we’ve noticed over the years is that as the prescription opiate pain reliever base goes up—legitimately and illegitimately—more kids are getting into these pills,” said Dr. Randall Bond, medical director for the Cincinnati Drug and Poison Information Center. Other drugs, such as heart medications, certain antidepressants, and anti-malaria drugs are equally dangerous, but not as common, Bond added,
Dart noted that about half of the opiate exposures occurred in “complicated” households, in which adults live together, often with histories of drug use or child neglect; others occurred in “competent” families with no signs of neglect or abuse. “For good families, if you have patient opioids in the household, you’d be surprised how fast a kid can get a hold of these,” Dart said. Some cases involved children drinking liquid methadone stored in refrigerators or finding drugs while crawling or toddling or when looking through pocketbooks and other places. Once a child ingests a strong painkiller, the effects can be quick and fatal because the drugs generally depress respiration, so a child may be found to have stopped breathing.