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How the opioid crisis is trickling down to kids

Hospitals are reporting that the number of children they are treating for opioid poisoning increased 165 percent between 1997 and 2012.

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Ann Arbor police, firemen, and medical personnel respond to an overdose at the Ann Arbor District Library in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Katie McLean/The Ann Arbor News/AP

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An excess of opioid painkillers across the nation has increased the likelihood that children and teenagers will accidentally poison themselves, according to a new study.

As families and communities around the country battle opioid addiction and overuse, children have found themselves caught in the epidemic as well, either by bearing witness to their parents overdosing, accidentally ingesting the drugs themselves, or deliberately using them. From 1997 to 2012, the number of hospitals saw a 165 percent increase in the rate of children admitted for opioid poisoning, bringing the number from 1.4 in every 100,000 children to 3.71 in just 15 years, a study from the Yale School of Public Health published Monday found.

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"Opioids are ubiquitous now," Julie Gaither, a postdoctoral fellow at the school who led the study, told NPR. "Enough opioids are prescribed every year to put a bottle of painkillers in every household. They're everywhere, and kids are getting into them."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared that the US is "in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic" in regard to the extremely addictive painkillers. The United States has seen the number of opioid deaths nearly quadruple since 1999, leading to around 78 daily overdoses, according to the CDC.

The study, which examined discharge papers from 13,000 opioid poisonings and census data to extrapolate rates of overdoses over that time period, found that an increase in child overdoses has mirrored the national epidemic. While the number of toddlers and young children who ingested the drug without knowing it more than doubled, the highest rate of overdose came among teens, with around 10 of every 100,000 ending up in the hospital – sometimes from their own prescriptions.

While more children are growing up in the homes of substance abusers who obtain drugs illegally, these cases involving children and adolescents overdosing mostly occurred when drugs in the home were obtained by a prescription and meant for an adult’s health benefits.

As addiction and opioid abuse awareness has risen in recent years, many have developed a new image of the crisis: Rather than just impacting the more commonly known heroin users in urban areas, opioid abuse has become commonplace in suburban and rural areas, taking the lives of tens of thousands across all demographics each year. But the substance's effect on those under 18, especially younger than 10, hasn’t been widely acknowledged, experts say.

"This is largely seen as an adolescent problem or an adult problem," Sharon Levy, director of the adolescent substance abuse program at Boston Children's Hospital, who was not involved in the study, told NPR. "But this paper really highlights that this really knows no age boundaries."

Findings like this could spur a rethinking of how parents and doctors rethink opioid distribution and storage. But that dialogue hasn’t been a part of doctor-patient conversations traditionally, and getting physicians to think about how a prescription could affect not only a patient but also others in their home could take time.

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"Our research, however, suggests that poisonings by prescription and illicit opioids are likely to remain a persistent and growing problem in the young unless greater attention is directed toward the pediatric community, who make up nearly one-quarter of the U.S. population," the study said.