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U.S. Poison Centers See Dramatic Increase in Young Children Exposed to Illicit Fentanyl

May 10, 2024 8:59 AM | Shauna Devitt (Administrator)

Research conducted by the Oregon Poison Center highlights the devastating impact of the fentanyl crisis on children in the United States.

U.S. Poison Centers are reporting a dramatic increase in cases of young children exposed to illicit fentanyl. In 2016, 10 cases of illicit fentanyl exposures in children under 6 years old were reported to U.S. Poison Centers. By 2020 that number jumped to 120 and by 2023, U.S. Poison Centers managed 539 cases of illicit fentanyl exposure in children under 6 years old; a 349% increase in 3 years and a 5,290% increase since 2016.  

“It is imperative that the community provides resources to end the fentanyl epidemic and that people who use illicit drugs secure them from children by using opaque child-resistant lockable containers,” says Robert Hendrickson, M.D., lead author of the study, medical director of the Oregon Poison Center and professor of emergency medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine. “We are extremely concerned about what we are seeing in the community and will continue to bring the issue to the forefront to raise awareness about how to prevent unintentional exposures among children.”

Fentanyl, when prescribed by a doctor, can be given as a dissolvable tablet, lozenge, spray, injectable or patch. Illegally manufactured fentanyl most often associated with recent high-profile poisonings is made in unauthorized labs and pressed into small blue pills meant to mimic oxycodone tablets. Unlike prescription pills, the amount of fentanyl in these counterfeit pills may vary from pill to pill and the amount in a single pill can be deadly for most children. In addition to fentanyl, these pills may contain a variety of other medicines including fentanyl analogs, or sedatives like xylazine that may contribute to poisoning. Illicit fentanyl may also be available as a white powder of varying concentration and children may be exposed by getting powder on their hands and then touching their mouths.

A study conducted by the Oregon Poison Center and published in the New England Journal of Medicine determined that pediatric fentanyl exposures increased in relation to the number of pills seized. The study found that more than 80% of pediatric unintentional exposures to illicit fentanyl occurred in the child’s home, highlighting the need for education and awareness about preventing unintentional pediatric drug exposures.

“The rise of cases for young children exposed to fentanyl highlights the need for increased public awareness of the fentanyl epidemic,” said Dr. Kaitlyn Brown, Clinical Managing Director for America’s Poison Centers. “Equipping communities with knowledge about the dangers of fentanyl exposures in young children, how to prevent accidental exposure, and what to do when a child has been exposed is key to keeping young children safe.”

Children exposed to illicit fentanyl experienced a variety of symptoms including loss of consciousness and slowed or stopped breathing. Sixty-three percent of the children were treated with naloxone. To prevent opioid poisoning parents of young children should ensure all medicine, drugs and other potentially poisonous substances are kept up high and out of reach. Simple measures like using a cabinet lock or medicine lock box can have a big impact. These substances must be locked up after every use.

Teach young children not to put anything in their mouth unless a trusted adult says it’s okay. When visiting another household, make sure medicine and drugs are out of reach or locked up. 

People who use illicit drugs, or whose loved ones use illicit drugs, should take precautions against overdoses, including carrying multiple doses of naloxone, the opioid reversal drug. People who use fentanyl should be aware of the risk to children and use lock boxes or opaque lockable portable bags to store fentanyl or any potentially dangerous drug. It is important to note that naloxone that is intended for adults can be used safely on a child who is not breathing due to fentanyl or any opioid.

Signs that someone is experiencing an opioid overdose include:

  • Small, constricted “pinpoint” pupils
  • Pale, bluish skin
  • Vomiting or foaming at the mouth
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Appearance of sleepiness or loss of consciousness.

Call 9-1-1 right away if someone is unconscious, not breathing or if naloxone has been given.

Poison Center experts are available 24/7/365 at no cost and can provide fast, free, and confidential help if you or a loved one is experiencing unwanted symptoms after taking pills or using illicit substances.


Maggie Maloney

America’s Poison Centers

Sr. Director of External Affairs

For More Information, Contact:

Maggie Maloney, MS 
Director, Public Education & Communications



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