Buprenorphine Exposure Affects Kids At Alarming Rates

By Beth Leipholtz 06/26/18

The number of children exposed to the addiction drug rose 215% over three years. 

young girl talking to doctor in hospital

As the opioid crisis continues to grow, some children are being put at risk as they are exposed to buprenorphine, an opioid medication used to treat opioid use disorder. 

A new study published in the journal Pediatrics found that from 2007 to 2016, more than 11,200 calls were made to poison control centers in the U.S. with concerns about children being exposed to buprenorphine. Of those, 86% were about children under age 6 and 89% were unintentional exposures. 

"This is never prescribed for children under 6. It is a significant risk to them," Henry Spiller, director of the Central Ohio Poison Center and an author of the study, told CNN. "We're not quite sure why it stands out so much. 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.”

Of the 11,275 children exposed to the medication, the overall exposure rate per 1 million grew by more than 215% from 2007 to 2010. It then decreased 42.6% from 2010 to 2013, before increasing again in 2016 by 8.6%.

Dr. Jason Kane, an associate professor of pediatrics and critical care at University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital, tells CNN that the increase in exposure has to do with the increase in adults using buprenorphine as a treatment option.

"This is not the first study to show these data, but it is the latest study to show a medication whose design it is to help adults with narcotic or opioid addiction is ending up poisoning, mostly unintentionally, children and in particular those who are most vulnerable," Kane said. 

Buprenorphine is an opioid receptor stimulant as well as a blocker. It is considered an opioid but does not have the same effect as other opioids for adults, thought it can still be habit-forming. For children, however, it can have a stronger effect on the respiratory system.

"In adults, the respiratory depression, the part that slows the breathing and you stop breathing, is limited, and so there's a lot less respiratory depression in adults," Spiller told CNN. "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."

Of adolescent exposures, 77% were intentional and more than one-quarter used the medication with another substance. 

"It was surprising that adolescents were actually using it for abuse. It's very specific," Spiller told CNN. "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."

According to CNN, study authors expect the number of exposures to continue to increase.

To limit exposure, Kane recommends disposing unused medications, using child-proof caps and making sure medications are labeled correctly.

"Seven children under the age of 6 died as a result of an accidental poisoning from this drug, which was present in someone's home, prescribed with the goal of making someone else better," Kane said to CNN, adding, "that's a striking thing for me."

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.