Childhood Exposure to Opiates – A Potentially Lethal Crisis for Parents

A child with a prescription drugs

The opiate epidemic has rocked America and brought on one of the worst national public health emergencies of our time. This crisis has also brought with it a range of unpleasant consequences. New study findings suggest that young people are being taken to emergency rooms because of accidental overdoses on opioid painkillers. And the statistics on these types of emergencies are rising.

Children at Risk of Opiate Overdoses

Beginning in the late-1990s, pharmaceutical manufacturers increased their production and distribution of common opiate analgesics such as OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, etc. Pharma representatives ensured doctors that these painkillers would not be addictive and that they would not have harmful side effects.

Shortly into the new century, however, it became quite evident that these drugs did have harmful side effects and that millions of Americans were becoming addicted to the drugs.

Yet, for some reason, opiate painkillers are still a staple of modern medicine which one can find in the medicine cabinets of millions of American homes. And while some efforts have been made to curb the spread of opiate addiction and to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable, the opiate crisis is still ongoing.

According to new research, life-threatening cases of children misusing opiates is on its way up. Researchers found that more and more kids (individuals ages 1-18) are winding up in ERs due to near-death exposure to opiate painkillers. For teenagers, much of these overdoses are the result of suicide attempts. But children’s overdoses are usually the result of totally accidental or unintentional exposure, such as a child consuming a bottle of painkillers thinking they’re candy.

Little girl on the way to Emergency Room

From 2005 to 2009, children made up 7 percent of total ER admissions for opiate poisoning. From 2015 to 2018, children made up 10 percent of total such admissions. From 2005 to 2018, U.S. poison control centers reported more than 207,000 cases of opioid overdoses among babies, children, adolescents, and teens.

Dr. Jocelyn Grunwell an assistant professor of pediatric critical care medicine at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, commented on the findings: “Parents and pediatricians need to be alert to the risk of self-harm, misuse, and abuse of opioids in children and adolescents. Much of the research on the opioid crisis has focused on the impact to adults; however, children and adolescents in the U.S. are also negatively affected by the opioid epidemic. Parents need to remove, or restrict access to, opioids, and seek mental health services for children and teens at risk for self-harm and opioid abuse.”

The Opiate Epidemic and Its Statistics – Why We Must Address the Public Health Crisis

There is no question that the United States is mired in what might be our most critical drug problem yet. Every year, millions of Americans struggle with opiate dependencies. Tens of thousands of addicts die each year from their habits. Is it all that surprising that, as opiates have become more prevalent in our society, that children are becoming increasingly exposed to them?

“Every day, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. The misuse of and addiction to opioids—including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl…”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse issued a pointed warning on the opiate crisis. “Every day, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. The misuse of and addiction to opioids—including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl—is a serious national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare.”

When we examine the opiate situation with the above quote in mind, we can see that this is a drug problem that affects several areas of American life. It’s not just a drug problem for a few million people. It’s a national public health emergency that affects millions of families. It’s a crisis that lays a heavy blow upon our economy, on our healthcare, on our criminal justice system, etc.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also provides some concerning revelations on the sheer death toll of the opiate emergency and the drug crisis as a whole. According to their data, “Drug overdose deaths continue to increase in the United States. From 1999 to 2017, more than 702,000 people have died from a drug overdose. In 2017, more than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses, making it a leading cause of injury-related death in the United States. Of those deaths, almost 68% involved a prescription or illicit opioid.”

And while opiates get much of the media attention and medical priority, our country’s drug problem is not solely centered on this type of drug. The National Institute on Drug Abuse provides a good overview of not only how many people in the U.S. are addicted, but what they’re addicted to. “In 2017, approximately 19.7 million people aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder (SUD) related to their use of alcohol or illicit drugs in the past year, including 14.5 million people who had an alcohol use disorder and 7.5 million people who had an illicit drug use disorder. An estimated 2.1 million people had an opioid use disorder, which includes 1.7 million people with a prescription pain reliever use disorder and 0.7 million people with a heroin use disorder.”

The above statistics and factual data give a good idea of just how serious drug use and addiction in America has become. This is something we have to remedy. We have to keep our children safe from substances that can harm them.

Keeping Our Families Safe

Father talks to jis son about opioid drugs

It is eminently clear that the opiate crisis is taking a devastating toll on our country. Thankfully, there are steps that we can all take to keep our families safe from overdoses and other drug-related harms.

Parents should:

  • Make every effort to keep opiates out of the house. The vast majority of child and adolescent exposures to opioids occur within the home. If at all possible, parents should not keep such drugs in the house.
  • Parents need to inform and educate their kids about prescription drugs. Parents should have talks with their kids and teach them. They should explain to their children that just because a drug is human-made and legal, prescription drugs are not safe for recreational or self-medicative consumption.
  • Parents should seek alternative solutions for pain relief. Choosing to do this depends entirely on the household, the individuals in that household, and their medical conditions. But without giving direct medical advice, we do encourage families to seek alternatives to opiate painkillers whenever possible.

We must raise our children in an environment that is safe for them, safe for their physical, emotional, and mental health. As parents, we owe it to our kids to ensure they do not become exposed to opiates and to ensure that they know to stay away from such drugs in the future.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.