We Should be Concerned with the Increasingly High Rates of Opioid Use by Children

Written By: Calvin Pegus

Child health disparities have always been a concern for healthcare practitioners, social scientist, and policymakers.  Health disparities are the differences in health outcomes for specific health indexes between groups within the population.  As the opioid epidemic ravages the fabric of American communities across the nation, opioid addiction continues to have a high rate of abuse by children and teenagers.

There is an alarming increase of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) which happens when a baby is exposed to drugs in the womb before birth.  This syndrome can affect babies who have to deal with drug withdrawal after birth.  According to the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality every 25 minutes a baby is born with some form of opioid withdrawal.  The rate of people becoming addicted have also left an increasing number of grandparents to raise grandchildren.

The opioid epidemic in America is at a pivotal crisis and requires an urgent response. According to the article Current State of the Opioid Epidemic as it Pertains to PediatricOrthopaedics From the Advocacy Committee of the PediatricOrthopaedic Society of North America.  80% of high school seniors reported nonmedical use of prescriptions opioids.  The research showed that these students had legitimate prescriptions but still misused the leftover doses.  The enormity of prescription opioid abuse by adolescents needs to be addressed in order to reduce opioid overprescribing and misuse.  According to the National Poison Data System, it reported that 60 percent of pediatric exposures to prescription opioids, reported as poisonings, were in children up to five years old, and 30 percent in teenagers. Most teenage opioid deaths were from intentional opioid use, whereas children under six were exposed unintentionally to medications around the home.   Overall, nearly one-fourth of US high school seniors had some exposure to prescription opioids.  A study of seventh- and eighth-graders found a five percent prevalence of nonmedical prescription opioid use.

Addiction to opioid medications can occur quickly, due to its highly addictive nature and intense cravings. Opiates create a false sense of euphoria, which tricks the body into feeling pain-free. The brain needs to reach the initial level of high and changes the individual from wanting to needing opiates or a similar cheaper drug like heroin to fulfill the cravings.  Common risk factors that may contribute to drug experimentation among adolescents and children include: exposure to social peer pressure; pop cultural norms; inability to achieve high scholastic goals; mental health challenges; genetics; and/or living in a home in which their parents are dealing with addiction.

Though the effects of the opioid epidemic among children and adolescents as a health predicament receives less attention, it does require a more diligent and innovative approach.  With the lack of trustworthy information available on the various social media outlets, many kids are using drugs, without understanding the actual effects and severity of addiction and drug dependency.  What children and adolescents may not understand, is that, once you start using opiates it can take control of the child before they even realize it is happening.

Addiction is a disease and should be treated as a disease.  Prevention is the key to reducing the likelihood of addiction. The earlier we educate our children about drugs, the easier it will be to shift their perceptions of their responsibility in medicinal and social use. Many children and adolescents start using substances early, and teaching children about the risk of drug use need to begin at an early age.  Other strategies could include addressing younger children expectations about pain management, as well as, legislative initiatives to shift the way opiates are prescribed.  It is essential to develop interventions and innovations that will address this new emerging health disparity affecting children in the 21st century.