Opioid overdose rates have increased throughout the country since the late 1990s, claiming more than 33,000 lives in 2015. Sadly, children have not been exempt from the crisis — like 10-year-old Alton Banks, who became one of Florida’s youngest victims of the opioid epidemic earlier this year. He would have celebrated his 11th birthday on July 27. Alton spent part of his day on June 23 at a pool with friends, but he spent his final moments of life in his Miami home that evening. After his mother found him unconscious on the floor, he was immediately rushed to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The alleged cause of death? Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid medication 50–100 times more potent than morphine. But what makes this case different from other opioid stories involving children is that it’s unknown exactly how this substance got into his system.
This heartbreaking loss serves as a reminder of how dangerous opioids can be to children — and to anyone else. It has also left parents wondering if they’re doing enough to protect their own children from accidental opioid overdose. Although the home is a common place for accidental opioid exposure, it’s certainly not the only place, as was the case with Alton. Investigators have not found any evidence that he came in contact with fentanyl at home. They suspect he was “exposed to it at the pool or on his walk home in Miami’s Overtown community, which has been hard-hit by the opioid epidemic,” according to the Associated Press.
Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, babysitter or nanny, here are a few ways you can protect children from opioids:
1. Lock Your Medicine Cabinet
This may seem like the most obvious way to protect children from opioid exposure, but only 20 percent of American adults who take prescription medications keep them locked up. This is according to a 2017 Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs survey of more than 1,000 American adults. Always keep both prescription and over-the-counter medications in a locked place, out of children’s reach. If you store your medications in a drawer, invest in a drawer lock to make it childproof.
2. Check Your Floors
Many prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone come in tablet form. Just as with any other bottle of pills, it’s easy to accidentally drop a pill or two on the ground as you’re tapping the bottle against your palm. If you have prescription opioids at home, get in the habit of checking the floor after you take them. Even if you know you didn’t drop any, check anyway; you might have dropped one in the past that you missed. It’s better to spend a few extra seconds to scope the area and be 100 percent sure than to risk having a child find them.
3. Know Your Surroundings
According to The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the five states with the most opioid overdose deaths in 2014 were Ohio, California, New York, Florida and Illinois. There are various cities and neighborhoods within these other states that see a greater amount of drug abuse cases than neighboring areas. That’s why it’s vital to have a general idea of the safety of your surroundings as far as drug abuse is concerned. Which areas see the most drug crimes? Which are the safest overall? If you don’t already have the answers to these questions, you can find them on the sites like crimereports.com. If you’re looking for nationwide statistics on drug abuse, you can find them at drugabuse.gov or cdc.gov.
4. Teach Your Kids About Opioids
While children often learn about the dangers of various drugs in school, that doesn’t mean you can’t provide some education of your own. Even if you don’t have any opioid medications in your home, your child might visit a home that does. That’s why it’s important to talk to them about the dangers of opioids and why they should stay away from them. Showing your child photos of what these drugs look like can also be very helpful. In powder form, some opioids may resemble Pixy Stix or plain sugar to a child. In pill form, they can resemble certain candies. Both forms can easily result in what’s referred to as “exploratory exposure.” With that in mind, remind your child to never ingest any powder or tablet that they come across.
Opioid Facts and Stats
The Alton Banks tragedy isn’t the first time fentanyl has been in the news. Many remember it was also the drug involved in pop superstar Prince’s death in 2016. According to the July 18 Associated Press article on the Alton’s case, “health officials say fentanyl and other synthetic forms of the drug are so powerful that just a speck breathed in or absorbed through the skin can be fatal.” This is what investigators suspect happened to Alton.
So what exactly makes fentanyl and other opioids like oxycodone, morphine and codeine so dangerous?
As painkillers, opioids can produce intense euphoric effects if taken in large amounts. This is why they have the potential to be misused (with or without a prescription), leading to addiction and fatal overdose. However, pharmaceutical companies were unaware of these highly addictive qualities in the late ‘90s, when doctors began prescribing them more frequently. This is how the opioid crisis began. Now, both pharmaceutical companies and doctors are well aware of the dangers associated with the misuse of fentanyl and other opioids. These include the overdose symptoms, some of the most serious of which are:
- Shallow breathing
- Loss of consciousness
- Slow or erratic pulse
- Unresponsive to outside stimuli
Since the opioid crisis began, there have been many statistics gathered on its victims, including the unlikely ones: children. There have been thousands of opioid-related emergencies involving children throughout the nation, with some victims as young as 13 months of age.
Accidental Opioid Ingestion Cases
Almost 60,000 children under the age of 5 accidentally ingest prescription medications every year, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
Poison Control Calls
There were 188,000 calls between January 2000 and December 2015 to U.S. poison control centers that involved children who were exposed to opioids, averaging 32 calls a day. This is according to a study conducted by the Center for Injury Research and Policy and the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Opioid Poisoning Cases
Fifty-one children under the age of 5 died from opioid poisoning in 2015, according to the Associated Press. This was 51 percent more than the number in 2000.
These statistics are alarming, but medical professionals have increased their efforts to combat the opioid crisis, especially those in the states that have been hardest-hit by it. The Recovery Village’s Umatilla, Florida facility and its newest Columbus, Ohio facility are just two of the many drug rehabilitation centers that are part of the efforts. If you currently have a painkiller prescription, you can help lower the number of children who are exposed to these opioids and save lives simply by practicing safe handling and education.