A new study published on 25 June in the journal Academics has found that from 2007 to 2016, over 11,200 calls reported children’s exposure to opioid medication which is used to treat opioid use disorder. The drug is called buprenorphine, and 86% of the exposures reported were in children under the age of 6, with 89% of the cases being unintentional exposure.
Henry Spiller is the director of the Central Ohio Poison Center and one of the authors of the study. He explains that the numbers are shockingly high because the drug is “never prescribed for children under 6. It is a significant risk to them.”
Spiller believes that in most of the cases, medication was left out within reach of children that then try it out:
“Perhaps the parents who have this may not think it’s as risky as their other opiates because it doesn’t have the big effect that the other opiates do for them.”
What is Buprenorphine?
Buprenorphine is a stimulant opiate receptors and a blocker, according to Spiller, meaning that it is an opiate that doesn’t offer the same “high” as other opiates. But the issue with children exposure is that the drug causes respiratory depression, says Spiller:
“…There’s a lot less respiratory depression in adults. That’s why it was felt to be safer. Unfortunately, in very young children under 5, preschoolers, toddlers, infants … that protection isn’t there, and they do get this respiratory depression. It does affect their breathing.”
As for teens, they don’t risk respiratory depression, but aren’t immune to it either:
“Real significant effects are additive. They get worse when you start adding in things like alcohol, maybe another drug, other things.”
Buprenorphine Used in Teens’ Suicide Attempts
Exposure of teens made only for 11%, with 77% of them being intentional (out of them 12% were suspected suicides). According to the study, over 25% used buprenorphine with at least other substance.
Spiller was surprised to find out that adolescents used the drug for abuse:
“You have to be in a program to get this. It’s carefully managed. It’s not widely available. … It is available on the street, but essentially, the majority of this is from these management programs and someone’s in therapy, someone in the house, them or a family member.”
Over 60% of buprenorphine abuse or misuse was in male teens, but almost 60% of female teens used it in suspected suicides. Spiller wars that if the drug is in the home, it could be easily used for suicide attempts.
The authors of the study recommend better exposure prevention according to the children’s age group, like creating a unit-dose packaging instead of a bottle, locking the medications on a shelf to keep them away from children and teenagers, and safely disposing of the unused meds.
Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.