Protecting The Next Generation from Fentanyl Addiction

Protecting The Next Generation from Fentanyl Addiction

Fentanyl has become a national crisis in the United States over the past few years and was responsible for over 107,000 deaths in 2021. A new layer to this crisis has recently come to light from an article that appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Updated: 2023
Written by: Allendale Treatment

Children between the ages of 1 to 5 are testing positive for fentanyl at an alarming rate with some showing no symptoms and possibly building a tolerance to this dangerous opioid.

A Worrying Trend

Natalie Laub, a physician at Rady Children’s Hospital who is board certified in pediatrics and child abuse says that there’s been an increase in the number of children testing positive for fentanyl. “From 2018 to 2022, there was a 1,600 percent increase in the number of children under the age of 5 who have tested positive for fentanyl at Rady Children’s,” says Laub. “Back in 2018, we were only seeing three to four fentanyl ingestions a year in young children. In 2022, that number was 88 ingestions, and the average age of a child from that group who has ingested fentanyl is 2. While the number 88 may not seem that high, you must remember the number should be zero.”

One of the causes for the increase in fentanyl exposure to children is its explosion on the drug scene over the past five years. Nate Moellering, a community outreach coordinator at Allendale Treatment and Fort Wayne Recovery says that fentanyl has become the most prevalent opioid on the street. “There’s very little heroin in the streets now, even if people think they’re purchasing another opioid, 9 out of 10 times it’s going to be fentanyl or have fentanyl-laced in,” says Moellering. “I don’t remember the last time someone came into our detox facility and failed a drug test due to heroin.”

Signs of Fentanyl Overdose Infographic

Why Are So Many Children Being Exposed to Fentanyl?

Due to its prevalence as a top street drug, fentanyl has quickly become one of the most commonly used opioids. This, along with its appearance, has caused more young children to become exposed to it.  “If you’re living in a one-bedroom apartment and crushing up pills in the bedroom or living room and snorting them, there’s going to be little bits of powder that look like glitter left behind,” says Moellering.  “Young children naturally want to touch everything and put things in their mouths out of curiosity. Because of this, they’re going to unknowingly ingest tiny bits of fentanyl and over time, they can build up a tolerance to it.”

Laub says that a lot of times when children have infested fentanyl, it can be hard to tell since they don’t exhibit any symptoms. “While some children who ingest fentanyl are brought in via ambulance on life support, the most shocking part of the data is that many children have no symptoms of opioid ingestion, such as shallow breathing, small pupils and lethargy,” says Laub. “When I first saw a toddler smiling and running around with a urine drug screen positive for fentanyl, it was hard to believe. Then I saw another and another. I didn’t understand what was happening. I was left scratching my head, asking, how can so many well-appearing infants and children, some as young as 4 months old, test positive for fentanyl?”

Moellering says that another reason why fentanyl pills are appealing to children is because they look like candy. “The rainbow pills and a lot of the fake street pills look like they could be candy to a child. There blue and the size of sweet candies but one of those pills could be fatal to a child.”

Even though they’re legal, fentanyl patches which are often used by patients who experience chronic pain such as cancer patients, are another way some children are being exposed to the substance. Physicians caution parents who use these patches to ensure they’re properly stored, worn and disposed of to prevent them from getting accidentally stuck to a child or to prevent them from putting them in their mouth which could be fatal.  

Tommy Streeter, a community outreach coordinator for Allendale Treatment and Fort Wayne Recovery says that it’s important to understand that children ingesting fentanyl isn’t just a problem in isolated areas. “This isn’t just happening in San Diego, California or Allen County, Indiana where I’m from, it’s happening across the country,” says Streeter.

Fentanyl Exposure Prevention For Children Infographic Allendale Treatment

Potential Long-Term Consequences 

While more studies need to be done on how this will impact children in the long run, Moellering says that it could be setting them up for a life of addiction. “When children are coming into the emergency room and testing positive for fentanyl, we don’t know if this is the first, fifth, or hundredth time they’ve been exposed,” says Moellering. “Their brains aren’t fully developed and it’s not meant to handle substances like fentanyl. Their brain chemistry is thrown into chaos and this could have a developmental impact on them socially, emotionally and physically; and set them up for a lifetime full of substance use struggles.” 

Laub says that she’s concerned that as long as fentanyl use continues to be prevalent among adults, more children are going to continue ingesting the substance. “As part of our study, we decided to look more closely at a group of children identified as drug-endangered children who had no symptoms of opioid ingestion,” says Laub. “There was a group of 40 children in San Diego County known to be in the presence of adults using fentanyl or near another child in a home who tested positive for fentanyl. Seventy-three percent of the children in this group tested positive for fentanyl. Let that sink in. Nearly three out of four of these children tested positive for fentanyl but looked normal. They were playing, laughing and breathing.”

Moellering is concerned that it will take several years before we know what kind of an impact this will have on the next generation. “We’re not going to see the full impact of the opioid crisis for at least another decade or more,” says Moellering. “Children who grow up in an environment with parents who have substance use disorders, start to form their response to trauma even before they have memories. Kids can tell when something is wrong with their parents even if they don’t understand what it is. The impact this is going to have on them in the long-term is troubling.”