The upward trajectory of drug overdose fatalities persists in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the toll surpassed 112,000 lives between May 2022 and May 2023, marking a 37% surge compared to the 12-month span ending in May 2020. While the majority of victims were adults, there’s a concerning surge in drug overdose fatalities among American adolescents. Monthly figures escalated from 31 in July 2019 to 87 in May 2021, the latest available data period. As a substance use scholar specializing in age-specific patterns, I observe distinctive features in adolescents’ overdose deaths, including variations in gender, race, ethnicity, and the substances contributing to these tragedies. These disparities emphasize the need for tailored high-risk groups and prevention strategies for adolescents distinct from those for adults. Analyzing CDC data for individuals aged 10 to 19, it’s evident that, similar to adults, most adolescents succumbing to drug overdoses are male. However, the percentage of females in this demographic is higher than that among women. Notably, the number of boys in the 10-19 age group dying from drug overdoses is over twice that of girls within the same age bracket.
In the realm of adults, three men succumb to a drug overdose for every two women. A notable distinction among adolescents emerges as fatal overdoses disproportionately impact white, non-Hispanic youths, surpassing the occurrence in their nonwhite counterparts more significantly than in adults. The primary contributor to fatal overdoses diverges as well.
Contrary to adults, where a combination of multiple drugs heightens overdose risk, adolescents face a distinctive scenario. Fentanyl, a potent opioid, emerges as the predominant cause of fatal overdoses in teens. Notably, 84% of adolescent fatal overdoses involve fentanyl, with 56% exclusively attributed to this powerful opioid.
This trend aligns with research indicating a decline in prescription opioid misuse rates among adolescents and young adults from 2015 to 2019. Concurrently, data reveals a decrease in deaths from heroin-involved overdoses in recent years.
The perilous nature of fentanyl, estimated to be around 100 times more potent than morphine, poses a heightened risk for teens and tweens with limited opioid tolerance. Accidental ingestion often occurs through counterfeit pills, which teens mistake for prescription opioids or stimulants. This unintentional use increases the likelihood of overdose, exacerbated by the lack of awareness leading to the absence of overdose-reversal medication like naloxone or fentanyl test strips.
Surprisingly, many adolescent overdose incidents transpire in the presence of bystanders who could intervene, yet naloxone administration is observed in less than half of these cases.
Contrary to common expectations, only 1 in 10 teens and tweens who succumbed to drug overdoses had a history of substance use treatment. Recognizing this pattern, parents are urged to initiate proactive discussions about substance use with their children by the age of 12. Parental disapproval of substance use has proven effective in deterring or delaying such behaviors.
Parents are encouraged to possess naloxone, an opioid receptor-blocking drug, as a preventive measure, akin to having car insurance for unforeseen circumstances. Recognizing the signs of an opioid overdose, such as shallow breathing, consciousness issues, and cold, clammy skin, equips individuals of any age to intervene effectively.
A noteworthy aspect is that over 40% of adolescents who succumbed to an overdose had a history of mental health conditions. This aligns with research correlating poorer mental health and opioid misuse in adolescents, and a similar link is observed in adults. Consequently, adults, whether caregivers or other figures in an adolescent’s life, are advised to routinely check on their mental health and promptly seek or recommend treatment for any concerns.