Opioid Researchers Reveal the Role of Teens in America's Overdose Crisis

"Millions of children and adolescents are now routinely exposed."

Amid the ever-accelerating opioid overdose crisis in the United States, a vulnerable group that’s been largely overlooked are kids. That’s changing with new research in JAMA Network Open, which reveals that opioid overdose deaths have dramatically increased among children and teens over the past two decades.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has compiled data on opioid overdose deaths for years, but incidences of overdose among different age groups are not often studied. The new paper, published Friday, shows using CDC data that almost 9,000 people younger than 20 years old died from prescription and illicit opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2016. During this time period, the researchers observed, the mortality rate increased by 268.2 percent.

“What began more than two decades ago as a public health problem primarily among young and middle-aged white males is now an epidemic of prescription and illicit opioid abuse that is taking a toll on all segments of US society, including the pediatric population,” write the study’s authors, led by Julie Gaither, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.N., a general pediatrics instructor at Yale Medical School. “Millions of children and adolescents are now routinely exposed in their homes, schools, and communities to these potent and addictive drugs.”

These graphs show (A) how many people under 20 years old died in the US from opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2016, and (B) the related mortality rates over the same period.
These graphs show (A) how many people under 20 years old died in the US from opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2016, and (B) the related mortality rates over the same period.

As Inverse reported in March, a Pediatrics study showed that the number of kids and teens hospitalized from opioid overdoses doubled between 2004 and 2015. The new study builds on that work by further breaking down the data for that population.

Gaither and her co-authors report some notable findings from their analysis of the 8,986 individuals who died during the 17-year study period:

  • 88.1 percent were between the ages of 15 and 19
  • 79.9 percent were non-Hispanic white children and adolescents
  • 73.1 percent were male

Furthermore, the number of opioid overdose deaths among non-Hispanic black children accounted for a larger proportion of the total deaths each year. While deaths of white children grew by almost three-fold, deaths of black children nearly quadrupled over the same time period.

The team also found that 61.6 percent of the deaths took place outside of a medical facility, with the majority of those deaths (38 percent) taking place in the home. Only 10.4 percent died in inpatient care.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine national data on deaths in children and adolescents from prescription and illicit opioid poisonings,” the team writes. “Nearly all of what is currently known about the epidemiology of fatal opioid poisonings in the United States comes from the adult overdose literature, where it is common to either exclude deaths in the young from the analysis or group them into 1 (eg, age, <25 years) or 2 (eg, age 0-14 and 15-24 years) broad categories.”

By parsing the available data into smaller categories, the researchers hope they can begin to shed more light on the issue of opioid overdoses among young people. Their data clearly show that the problem is growing, too, as the mortality rates from opioid overdoses nearly tripled among all US children and adolescents between 1999 and 2016.