Nearly 12,000 children and teens mistakenly get some sort of opioid drug each year, many of them kids under 5 who find pills by mistake, doctors reported Monday.
The littler ones are especially likely to get hold of buprenorphine, which is usually prescribed to help treat opioid addiction, the researchers found. Teens are more likely to be deliberately abusing the drugs.
"Greater efforts are needed to prevent opioid exposure to children of all ages," Dr. Gary Smith of Nationwide Children's Hospital and colleagues wrote in their report, published in Pediatrics.
The U.S. is in the grip of an opioid misuse epidemic.
Related: 78 Die From Opioid Overdoses Daily
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says opioid overdoses have hit record highs in the United States. The drugs killed more than 47,000 people in 2014 — more than the 32,000 who died in road accidents
Smith and colleagues checked on poison control center data, which can help find kids and teens who inappropriately took prescription medication without being endangered enough to go to a hospital.
"From 2000 through 2015, poison control centers reported 188,468 opioid exposures among children aged under 20 years old, averaging 11,779 exposures annually or 14.34 exposures per 100,000 children," they wrote.
That averages out to more than 30 calls a day.
"Most opioid exposures occurred at a residence," the team added.
The drugs they asked about included hydrocodone, codeine, oxycodone, propoxyphene, tramadol, morphine, methadone, buprenorphine, meperidine, hydromorphone, fentanyl, oxymorphone - sold under brand names such as Suboxone, OxyContin, Vicodin and Duragesic.
"Unintentional poisonings are now the leading cause of injury-related mortality in the United States. Among teenagers aged 15 to 19 years, there was a 91 percent increase in fatal poisoning from 2000 to 2009, which was mostly attributable to an increase in prescription drug overdoses," the team wrote.
With 22 percent of teens suffering from a mental health disorder severe enough to cause impairment or distress, it's a problem, the team pointed out.
"Nearly one in four high school seniors in the United States has had some lifetime exposure to prescription opioids, either medically or nonmedically. These exposures can lead to future use of illegal substances; almost 80 percent of new heroin users have previously used opioid pain medications," they wrote.
More than 70 percent of the teens took the drugs on purpose, the team found. More than a third were attempting suicide, while 21 percent were deliberately abusing the drugs. A second study in the same journal found that most teens who misuse opioids had been given a legitimate prescription at first.
And 90 percent of the buprenorphine cases were among kids under 5. "Ingesting even a partial buprenorphine tablet can harm a child," the team wrote. "Buprenorphine is almost exclusively prescribed for adults, so exposures among children represent a failure to safeguard the medication."
There are some clear ways to help stop some of the most dangerous overdoses, such as individually packaging pills so kids cannot accidentally take a handful.
"Alternate drug formulations and delivery systems, such as subcutaneous implants, also should be considered as a means of reducing pediatric exposures," the team wrote.
And adults need to keep track not only of their own medications, but those given to their children. "Seventy percent of teenagers who use prescription medications without a physician's order obtain the drugs from friends," the team noted.