The Disturbing Increase in Fentanyl-Related Deaths Among Children

This content has been reviewed and fact-checked by a certified addiction therapist and a board-certified physician.

This content has been reviewed and fact-checked by a certified addiction therapist and a board-certified physician.

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The opioid crisis has revolved around fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid initially created to treat severe pain.

However, a disturbing and frequently unreported aspect of the crisis is the deaths of infants and children due to fentanyl overdose.

Tragically, as of 2021, 40 babies and 93 children aged 1 to 4 have succumbed to this fate 1.

This increase in fatalities among young people is disconcerting and necessitates immediate attention.

This article will explore this problem by discussing the growth of such incidents, the sources of exposure, and the impact on families and communities.

 

Understanding Fentanyl

Created to help manage severe pain, especially for cancer patients in the advanced stages of their disease, Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid.

It’s estimated to be up to 100 times more potent than morphine and about 50 times stronger than heroin.

This potency has made it increasingly popular among illicit drug manufacturers and users.

Fentanyl offers a cost-effective substitute to traditional opioids as it requires smaller quantities to achieve the desired high, making it easier to transport and distribute.

Unfortunately, this has increased the prevalence of illicitly manufactured fentanyl infiltrating the drug market.

It’s crucial to differentiate between prescription fentanyl, which is rigorously produced for medical applications, and its illicit counterpart, which is often mixed with other drugs, increasing the risks of overdose and death.

 

The Rise of Fentanyl Addiction

The recent surge in fentanyl addiction can be attributed to various factors.

Initially developed for legal, medical purposes, fentanyl’s potency, which is up to 100 times stronger than morphine, made it a prime target for illegal drug producers and suppliers.

The opioid epidemic grew, partly due to the overuse of opioid painkillers, leading many individuals to the black market once their prescriptions ran out or became too expensive.

There, they found heroin and, increasingly, fentanyl-laced alternatives that were incredibly potent and affordable.

Illicit fentanyl, often mixed with other substances, quickly gained popularity due to its affordability and strength.

However, its potency also meant that there was a smaller margin of error between a dose that would provide a feeling of euphoria and one that could be fatal.

This led to a rapid increase in overdoses and reinforced its reputation as a deadly substance in the world of substance abuse.

 

The Vulnerable Population: Infants and Children

It’s important to recognize that infants and children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of substances like fentanyl.

This is due to several factors.

First, their smaller bodies and less developed metabolic systems mean that even tiny amounts of a potent substance can result in serious toxicity or overdose.

Second, young brains are still developing and are more susceptible to lasting damage from neurotoxic substances.

Third, children’s natural curiosity can lead them to explore and ingest unknown items without understanding the potential risks.

Fourth, children rely on adults for care and protection, so any negligence or accidental exposure by caregivers can have dire consequences.

Finally, in households where drug misuse is prevalent, children may come into contact with harmful substances due to inadequate storage or unintentional exposure, further increasing their risk.

 

ROUTES OF EXPOSURE AND CHALLENGES IN RECOGNIZING AND DIAGNOSING EXPOSURE IN CHILDREN

It is possible for children to come into contact with fentanyl in various ways, and each method presents unique challenges.

One of the most common ways is through accidental ingestion, as children’s curiosity may lead them to consume drugs within reach unknowingly.

Passive exposure can also occur if children come into contact with drug residues on surfaces, clothing, or in the air, particularly in environments where fentanyl is used or handled.

Unfortunately, intentional drug administration to a child is also possible, often done with malicious intent from a parent or caregiver.

Identifying fentanyl exposure in children can be complicated, as symptoms may resemble those of other pediatric emergencies like seizures, respiratory distress, or sepsis.

Furthermore, healthcare providers may not immediately consider opioid toxicity in their diagnosis unless there is a known history or visible evidence of drug exposure.

This could lead to delays in providing life-saving treatments like naloxone.

 

COMPARISON OF FENTANYL-RELATED DEATHS IN INFANTS VS. OLDER CHILDREN

When examining deaths related to fentanyl, there are distinct differences between infants and older children.

Infants, who are dependent on caregivers and have limited mobility, are more likely to be exposed to fentanyl passively or accidentally ingest improperly stored substances.

Due to their underdeveloped physiology, even small amounts of fentanyl can be fatal, and their symptoms may be mistaken for common pediatric conditions, which can delay appropriate treatment.

On the other hand, older children, particularly teenagers, may be exposed to fentanyl through experimentation, peer pressure, or unintentional consumption of adulterated drugs.

Although older children may have a slightly higher tolerance due to their larger body size, the risk remains enormous, particularly if they consume fentanyl, thinking it is less potent.

Furthermore, older children may be more likely to be in environments where illicit drug use increases their exposure risk.

Although the consequences are tragic for both age groups, the routes of exposure and potential for intervention differ significantly.

 

Rising Fentanyl-Related Deaths Among Infants and Children

The opioid epidemic is a tragic issue that has affected many parts of the world.

One particularly distressing aspect that has gained increased attention is the rising number of fentanyl-related deaths among infants and children.

As of 2021, 40 infants and 93 children between the ages of 1 and 4 have died from fentanyl overdoses.3

The increased illicit production and distribution of this drug have led to a concerning surge in overdoses and fatalities across all age groups, including our most vulnerable – children.

The rising number of child deaths related to fentanyl is a concerning issue that needs immediate attention.

 

Fentanyl-Related Deaths Among Infants and Children
According to data published by CNN1 Over 5,000 children and teens have died from overdoses involving fentanyl in the past two decades.
Studies on fentanyl overdoses in children The number of children dying from fentanyl overdoses is rising alarmingly.
Child deaths from fentanyl in the past eight years In just eight years, child deaths from fentanyl in the United States jumped 30-fold.
Fentanyl-related deaths in 2021 In 2021 alone, 40 infants and 93 children aged 1 to 4 years died from fentanyl overdoses.

 

Case Studies on Fentanyl-Related Deaths in Infants and Children

The alarming rise of fentanyl-related child fatalities is a critical issue that demands attention.

Here are some case studies highlighting the gravity of the situation:

1. According to a study conducted by Yale School of Medicine3, there has been a troubling increase in fentanyl-related deaths among children in the period between 2013 and 2021. The study revealed that deaths have increased over 30 times, which is a cause for concern. This exponential rise is an alarming indication of the widespread and indiscriminate nature of the crisis.

2. Recent nationwide data confirms the concerning trend of an increasing number of children in the United States falling victim to fentanyl overdoses. It is crucial that targeted and timely intervention strategies are implemented for this age group.

3. Recent reports from Minnesota Poison Control4 have shown a concerning increase in children being exposed to opioids, including fentanyl. This highlights the necessity for state-level initiatives to address the crisis.

4. Heart-wrenching real-life cases frequently appear in news reports and studies. One such study by the Yale School of Medicine3 highlighted the tragic loss of young lives caused by fentanyl exposure.

 

The evolving opioid epidemic emphasizes the importance of creating dedicated strategies in public health, education, and law enforcement to prevent fentanyl-related risks for infants and children.

Current Real-Life Cases In The News

The following are real-life cases that illustrate the seriousness of the situation.


‘I didn’t think it was real’: Father still in shock after 9-month-old dies from fentanyl overdose

In Nassau County, Florida, a tragic incident unfolded where a 9-month-old baby, Elijah, died from a fentanyl overdose. The baby’s mother, mistakenly thinking it was cocaine, administered it to help the infant sleep. The mother, a 17-year-old family friend of Deerfield County Club Road residents, was not meant to be at the residence that day. The infant’s teenage father, Phillip Word, expressed profound grief, saying he would have cared for Elijah if he had known the mother was tired. The medical examiner found lethal levels of fentanyl in the baby’s system, enough to kill 10 adults. The mother has been charged with manslaughter, and further investigations by relevant authorities are ongoing.

 

Oklahoma Couple Charged with Second-Degree Murder in Child’s Fentanyl Overdose Death

In Oklahoma City, Attorney General John O’Connor has filed charges against Harold Belton and Grashaunda Brooks following the fentanyl-related death of their 6-year-old son. The boy was brought to the emergency room without a pulse, with medical staff suspecting he had been deceased for over an hour. An investigation revealed a fatal amount of fentanyl in the child’s blood, and counterfeit oxycodone tablets containing fentanyl were found in the family’s home, specifically in a pill bottle labeled for Brooks, the mother. Though Brooks had been prescribed oxycodone, she had no prescription for fentanyl. Authorities have praised the joint efforts of the Oklahoma City Police Department and Drug Enforcement Administration in addressing the dangerous proliferation of illegal fentanyl, which was responsible for over 107,000 deaths nationwide in 2021.

8-month-old dies after fentanyl overdose in babysitter’s care, mom says

An 8-month-old infant, J’ream, tragically passed away, suspected of suffering a fentanyl overdose while at a babysitter’s residence in Dearborn Heights. Although an official autopsy is pending, a doctor’s report indicated the presence of fentanyl in the child’s system. The heartbroken mother laments that they are preparing for a funeral instead of J’ream’s first birthday, and she believes the babysitter is responsible for the tragic incident. As the family grieves, the Dearborn Heights Police await the autopsy results before determining potential charges.

 

These cases serve as sad reminders of the dire consequences of fentanyl exposure, emphasizing the importance of awareness, proper drug disposal, and the broader implications of the opioid crisis on our society’s youngest members.

 

Causes and Contributing Factors

The rise in accidental fentanyl exposures among children can be attributed to several causes and contributing factors.

First and foremost, caregivers and parents lack awareness about the extreme potency of fentanyl and its deadly consequences, even in minuscule amounts.

Secondly, many homes lack adequate childproofing measures specifically for substances containing or laced with fentanyl, often underestimating its danger compared to other household risks.

Further exacerbating the situation is the easy accessibility of fentanyl-laced substances.

Due to its potency, even small dosages can be fatal, making it easy to transport and inadvertently leave within a child’s reach.

Finally, the influence of family and social environments, where drug use or improper storage is normalized, can heighten children’s risk of exposure.

 

 

Accidental Fentanyl Overdoses Among Teens

It’s important to note that not just infants and children are at risk.

Teenagers, who often experiment or seek recreation, may unknowingly take drugs that have been mixed with fentanyl without realizing its deadly potency, even in small amounts.

The growing number of accidental fentanyl overdoses among teenage youths is a cause for concern, as the statistics indicate.4

A research letter reveals that in 2020, more than 950 teens aged 14 to 18 died of an overdose, translating to nearly 5 out of every 100,000 adolescents.

The increase is evident from the 518 deaths recorded in 2010, which remained steady at 492 each year thereafter.

Illicitly produced fentanyl found in drugs like heroin and cocaine is especially hazardous, with as little as 2 milligrams, equivalent to 10 to 15 grains of table salt, considered a lethal dose.

The statistics highlight the significance of raising awareness, implementing prevention measures, and providing access to treatment and support services to combat the fentanyl crisis among teenagers.

 

The Broader Impact on Families and Communities

The devastating ripple effects of fentanyl-related incidents reach well beyond the immediate victims, deeply impacting families and communities at large.5

Families directly affected by such tragedies grapple with intense emotional and social challenges, from grieving a lost child to potential stigmatization within their communities.

These events can also lead to significant financial burdens, from medical bills to funeral expenses.

Schools and community organizations are increasingly finding themselves on the frontlines, addressing the direct issue through education and awareness campaigns and providing much-needed support to affected families and peers.

Furthermore, the surging incidents place immense strain on medical facilities and first responders, as they often confront the harrowing task of managing overdoses, particularly in young patients, while also dealing with the emotional weight of such incidents.

 

Health and Developmental Implications

Exposure to Fentanyl in infants and children can cause serious health and developmental problems.6

Even tiny amounts of the drug can result in life-threatening symptoms such as respiratory depression, with the youngest being particularly susceptible.

Exposure survivors may face long-term health consequences, including neurodevelopmental issues that could harm cognitive function and lead to behavioral problems later in life.

The emotional toll on families is significant, with parents dealing with guilt, grief, and anxiety about their child’s potential long-term health effects.

Communities also experience collective distress, coming together to support affected families and work towards preventing future incidents.

 

Legal Risks and Implications

If a child or infant is exposed to fentanyl and overdoses or dies while under the care of parents or caregivers, there can be serious legal consequences.

Parents or guardians could face criminal charges ranging from child endangerment or neglect to manslaughter if it is found that they were negligent in storing the drug.

These incidents may also prompt investigations by child protective services, which could lead to the removal of other children from the home for their safety.

Beyond criminal charges, parents or caregivers may also be sued for damages by other family members or guardians seeking compensation for the child’s harm or death.

These legal implications highlight parents’ and caregivers’ crucial responsibility in ensuring the safety and well-being of the children in their care.

 

Challenges in Prevention and Intervention

The issue of fentanyl-related incidents involving children is complex and challenging to address.

The illegal fentanyl market is vast and covert, making it difficult for regulatory and law enforcement agencies to control the spread of this powerful opioid.

Although public health campaigns aim to increase opioid awareness, they often lack the necessary specificity to communicate the unique dangers of fentanyl, especially to children.

Therefore, there is a need for customized educational resources aimed at parents, caregivers, and healthcare providers that highlight the distinct risks and precautions associated with fentanyl.

Addressing the problem of substance abuse in society is also crucial in improving treatment and support systems that are accessible and effective for those struggling with addiction, indirectly reducing the risk to children in their care.

 

The Way Forward: Recommendations

As the danger of fentanyl-related incidents persists, especially among children, it’s crucial to take proactive measures to ensure the safety of our communities.

One primary recommendation is to impose stricter regulations on fentanyl precursors and analogs, which would hinder illicit production.

Additionally, it’s essential to increase access to naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug, in households with children, as it could be a lifesaving measure in potential overdose scenarios.

Another vital step is to promote community-based programs that offer education and resources to parents and caregivers on the risks of fentanyl and how to prevent exposure.

It’s also essential to equip healthcare providers with specialized knowledge to deal with fentanyl exposure in children effectively.

Implementing these recommendations can create a safer future for our children amidst the ongoing opioid crisis.

 

Fentanyl Treatment and Promising Approaches

The rising potency and prevalence of fentanyl in today’s drug landscape have made addiction treatment more crucial than ever.

Many specialized treatment centers recognize the unique challenges of fentanyl addiction and offer tailored programs to combat its grip on individuals.

Inpatient rehab centers are highly recommended as they provide a controlled environment away from potential triggers, allowing patients to focus solely on their recovery.

Holistic approaches are also becoming increasingly integrated into treatment regimens, as addiction affects the mind, body, and spirit.

Holistic therapies, such as yoga, meditation, art therapy, and nutritional guidance, work in conjunction with traditional treatments to offer a comprehensive healing journey that considers an individual’s overall well-being.

This approach addresses the physical aspects of addiction and promotes mental and emotional healing, increasing the chances of long-term recovery and a healthier future.

 

Despite the devastating effects of fentanyl, we can find hope by taking collective action, raising awareness, and being innovative.

By coming together as communities and families, sharing resources, knowledge, and support, we pave the way for a brighter future for generations to come.

However, we must act urgently to advocate for change and ensure no infant or child is left vulnerable to this harmful threat.

Together, we can reshape the narrative and protect the promise of tomorrow.

 

If you or a loved one is struggling with fentanyl addiction, there is hope. Please contact us at Cornerstone Healing Center in Scottsdale, AZ, for a free and confidential assessment. Our treatment center is focused on promoting internal healing for a sustainable recovery. Let us help you today!

 

SOURCES

[1] CNN: Fentanyl-related deaths among children increased more than 30-fold between 2013 and 2021

[2] U.S. Child Deaths From Fentanyl Jumped 30-Fold in Just 8 Years

[3] New Study From Yale Regarding Fentanyl Overdoses in Children

[4] Drug Overdose Deaths Among Persons Aged 10–19 Years — United States, July 2019–December 2021

[5] The Ripple Effect: The Impact of the Opioid Epidemic on Children and Families

[6] Accidental Exposures to Fentanyl Patches Continue to Be Deadly to Children

Published: 8/14/2023

Contributor: Julie Miller

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julie miller recovery writer and author

Recovery Writer and Advocate

Julie is a recovery advocate, with over two years sober. She is a recovery speaker who believes people can change for the better. Her mission is to write factual, helpful information about addiction, treatment, and recovery. She believes that no one should be left in the dark about the process at any stage of their recovery.
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Clinical Reviewer

Lionel, a Licensed Independent Substance Abuse Counselor (LISAC) with over 4 years at Cornerstone. Passionate about helping those with addiction, he has trained as an EMDR therapist  adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues of addiction, providing an empathetic approach.

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