Every year in the US, more than 250 million prescriptions are written for opioids. While there have been many reports looking at how this problem is affecting adults in our country, we have only recently started talking about the effect this epidemic is having on our children.
For younger children, exposure to opioids is almost always unintentional. For teens, however, almost three-quarters of the calls to poison control centers come when teens intentionally take the opioid and something goes wrong. Whether it is abuse, misuse, or suspected suicide, the outcomes usually aren’t good. Teens are more likely than younger children to be admitted to a health care facility and to experience serious outcomes from opioid exposure. These are powerful medications that can lead to coma and can stop breathing, causing death.
It’s important to catch and stop these behaviors early because prescription opioid misuse may increase the likelihood of an individual using heroin or other illegal drugs in the future. The rate of suspected teen suicides using opioids has risen more than 50% since 2000.
So what can we do? On our end, we are challenging manufacturers to change the packaging from loose pills in a prescription bottle to single-dose blister packs. We are also talking to doctors and encouraging them to rethink the way they prescribe these medications.
Parents can also play an important role in preventing teenagers’ opioid use and abuse.
Restrict teens’ access to opioids. About 70% of teens who use prescription opioids without a physician’s order get them from friends or relatives (with or without their knowledge). If someone in your household or a home your teen visits has a prescription for opioids, keep the medication out of sight – in a locked cabinet is best.
It’s ok to question the doctor. If your teen or someone in your household is prescribed an opioid medication, it’s ok to ask your doctor if there’s an alternative. If there’s not, ask for a prescription with a smaller number of pills and only fill it if the pain becomes bad enough to need this medication. If it’s not needed in a few days, destroy and discard the prescription (if you have a paper copy) – saving money, saving children from unnecessary drug exposure, and saving you the hassle of safely disposing unused medicines. This works well if you have a 24-hour pharmacy nearby; for those in communities without this luxury, it’s probably better to fill the prescription, and then only use it if needed.
Dispose of unused medications promptly and properly. Many communities have drug “take-back” programs. Call your city’s information line or local non-emergency police number to ask about medicine take-back programs in your community. The FDA offers several additional recommendations, including how to safely dispose of them at home and other ways to find drug collection sites.
Encourage open communication, and tell your teen it’s ok to ask for help. Recognize your teen really could be abusing drugs, and/or thinking about suicide.When teens know how to ask for help, they’re more likely to access mental health screening and treatment, which could reduce abuse of opioids for self-medication or self-harm. Help is available. Ask your doctor for a referral if needed.
Know how to call the Poison Help Line. Save the national Poison Help Line number, 1-800-222-1222, in your cell phone, and post it in a visible spot in your home. Call right away if you think your child or teen may have taken opioids - or any substance - they shouldn’t have. Please don’t wait for symptoms to develop to call.
Marcel J. Casavant, MD, is Division Chief of Toxicology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine at The Ohio State University College of Medicine and a Clinical Professor in the College of Pharmacy.
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