You don’t have to be smarter than a fifth grader to know that OxyContin is a powerful prescription painkiller. Late last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the prescription drug OxyContin for use in children as young as 11 years old – which, for many children, is 5th grade. Previously, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) stated that prescription opioids, such as OxyContin are in fact addictive – and can lead to use of heroin. That doesn’t sound like a bad recipe, does it? Let’s back up and talk a little more about OxyContin. Oxycontin is a controlled-release form of Oxycodone that is prescribed to treat chronic pain. Because OxyContin is a narcotic painkiller in the opiate family, it essentially blocks pain receptors in the central nervous system. Oxycontin was created for long-term relief of moderate to severe pain, and was intended for long-term relief (up to 12 hours). Because it is time released, the effects of the drug happen over a set period of time – rather than all at once. It requires fewer and less frequent doses to effectively manage pain. However, when taken recreationally – Oxycontin can produce a high, it can be dangerous and even fatal. A single dose, if large enough, can cause major breathing and respiratory problems – and even death. In the U.S. alone, opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin, contributed to roughly 17,000 deaths in 2011 – a number that had tripled since 2001. Heroin by way of Oxycontin. Because OxyContin and similar opioid painkillers are so powerful – and highly addictive – they’re very heavily regulated by the FDA. They’re also a very popular gateway into other drugs like heroin. Because the prescription narcotic is so similar to heroin, for those who are using the drugs, they’re often interchangeable. Research has shown that 4 out of 5 heroin users first began with recreational use of prescription painkillers – and additional studies indicated that roughly half of young people who inject heroin, started by abusing prescription drugs. This is mostly in part because of price – many young people who start abusing prescription opioids switch to heroin because it is much less expensive, and much more accessible. Safety precautions and strict measures. While OxyContin has been approved for children as young as 11 years old, the FDA says they are putting strict limits on the use of OxyContin in children. Unlike adults, kids must already have shown that they are capable of handling the painkiller by tolerating a minimum dose of 20 milligrams of oxycodone for five consecutive days. They also warn that parents and caregivers should monitor and store the prescription pills securely – so that young children never have direct access, and so that no one else in the household (other children, friends, or other visitors) has direct access to it. What does it mean for kids? With all of the evidence of danger of the drug – what does it mean for pediatric patients? For children who are battling cancer pain or pain at the end of life – long-acting painkillers like Oxycontin can help them to feel more comfortable, and focus their energy on being a kid, not fighting their pain. However, prescribing OxyContin to children with short-term medical needs such as sports injuries, could put them at an exception risk for developing an addiction that may follow them long after the illness or injury heals. That’s because teenagers are at a higher risk of developing an addiction because the brain doesn’t mature until about 25 years of age. Among those young adults and teens who are prescribed OxyContin, only a small number will become addicted – but that number is still significant. Like a person of any age who is facing a terminal illness and pain, it’s understandable why doctors would prescribe a painkiller to help reduce some of the physical suffering. However, how quickly will that line be drawn? How many middle school football players with a broken rib will be prescribed an opioid painkiller to ease their symptoms and get them back out on the field? How many parents will ask for their child to be put on the drug because they can’t bear to see their kid on the sidelines? How many young teens will recall the feeling they had while on the drug, and seek to find that same feeling after their prescription has run out? How many young teens will bring their prescription pills to school and sell them in the hallways? We don’t have the answers to all of these questions. While we’re hopeful that every single adult involved – whether it be doctor, parent, or caregiver – is responsible enough to make the right decisions and actions in the child’s health – it’s certainly not a given. Putting these types of powerful drugs into more hands doesn’t sound like the best recipe in fighting a growing drug epidemic across our country. What do you think?
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