More young Vermonters at ER for drug overdoses since the pandemic

Published: 11/21/2023 2:57:36 AM
Modified: 11/21/2023 2:56:42 AM

The number of young Vermonters who visited an emergency room due to an accidental drug overdose has been rising since the coronavirus pandemic, with older teens involved in most of these nonfatal cases, according to a new state report.

The report tracks overdoses from a wide variety of drugs, from over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol to illicit substances such as fentanyl analogs.

Last year, 425 Vermonters age 24 or younger visited hospital emergency rooms for unintentional drug overdoses, data from the state Department of Health shows. The count was up 64 from 2019, reflecting an upward trend that started when the pandemic hit Vermont in 2020.

Older teens, ages 15 to 19, accounted for the biggest group of patients. Next were young adults ages 20 to 24, followed by the youngest children, age 4 and below.

The state findings, announced in a brief issued Oct. 31, are based on a survey of Vermont ER visits from 2018 to 2022. They coincide with national trends, said Roy Belcher, director of planning and community services for the state health department’s division of substance use programs.

The top drugs involved in nonfatal overdoses varied by age group, the state’s analysis of 2022 hospital data found. Overdoses among the older teens most often involved prescription drugs, over-the-counter medication and stimulants. 

The stimulant category pertains to both illicit drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, and prescription drugs, such as Adderall and Ritalin, which are used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Overdoses among young adults were mostly linked to opioids, stimulants and prescription drugs. For the youngest children, over-the-counter medication, prescription drugs and cannabis were the leading causes.

Prescription drugs found in overdoses included the diabetic medication metformin, and hypertension drugs lisinopril and amlodipine. Over-the-counter medication included Tylenol, Advil, melatonin, Claritin and Nyquil.

The Northern New England Poison Center, whose territory covers Vermont, has seen the same accidental drug overdose trends since the coronavirus pandemic, said the center’s director, Karen Simone.

During the pandemic, many parents or guardians wound up working from home — alongside children who either had to attend school remotely or stop going to day care facilities. Simone said that created a situation in which infants, toddlers or little kids got their hands into substances when their caregivers weren’t looking.

“It’s impossible in a chaotic situation like this to watch them every second,” she said. “They’re going to get into what’s available.”

In other instances, parents or children (who were able to take their own medication) lost track of the daily doses because of the disruption in their regular routines. Previously, Simone said, children might have taken some of their medication in school, through a babysitter or at a grandparent’s home.

“Now it’s all happening at home,” she said. “It sets you up for the ability to make a mistake” Simone said “therapeutic errors” at home have remained elevated even though the pandemic declaration has ended. 

The legalization of cannabis in an increasing number of states has also resulted in children’s greater exposure to the substance, public health experts say. Simone advises caregivers to keep drugs in child-resistant containers and in secure places. Ones that look like gummies or candies, she said, are especially attractive to small children. 

“Keep the meds out of sight and out of reach. That will take care of a whole lot of this,” she said.

Accidental overdoses among teens and young adults, Simone said, have a closer correlation to the desire to get high from drugs. Sometimes, they also include preteens.

“I think that everybody’s doing everything at an earlier age now,” she said.

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