Children Whose Mothers Are Prescribed Opioids More Likely To Overdose, Study Says

By Britni de la Cretaz 02/22/17

More than half of the children who were treated for opioid poisoning were under two years old. 

Young child holding pill.

Mothers of children who have been prescribed an opioid medication may unwittingly be increasing their young children’s risk for opioid overdose.

A new study out of Canada has found that children whose moms receive an opioid prescription are at higher risk for being hospitalized for an overdose. Codeine, oxycodone and methadone were the most common at-risk medications in the study.

The findings are not surprising, as having pain medication in the house would obviously increase the likelihood that a child could access them. Last fall, another study in the U.S. found that the number of children hospitalized for opioid poisoning had more than doubled in recent years.

"It wouldn't be at all surprising for a two- or three-year-old to find a tablet and put it in his or her mouth," Dr. David Juurlink, a senior scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences who co-authored the study, told CBC News. "And it's important to understand that a single tablet could kill a small child. These are very dangerous drugs at the high end of the dose range."

Many adolescents who begin using prescription medication get it from the medicine cabinets of friends and family. But it’s also important to understand that even very young children who are not looking to get high or try the medication could end up accidentally consuming it.

In the Canadian study, no children died from their opioid poisoning, but more than half of the children were under two years old while nine were under the age of one.

"We don't know why the younger kids, under one, might have been exposed," said Juurlink, since children in that age range typically lack the motor skills necessary to access and ingest the medications. "It could have been an accident, it could have been a sibling," he said. "I suppose there's the possibility it could have been malicious. We simply couldn't say."

One thing that can contribute to kids accessing these kinds of controlled substances has to do with the difficulty that many people have with disposing of medications they are no longer taking. These pills sit in medicine cabinets, untouched, unintentionally creating risk in their homes for their children.

To combat this problem, the DEA has held “drug take back days” to encourage people to recycle and dispose of their unused medications.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.