Drug to treat opioid addiction poses risks for accidental exposure to children

December 14, 2012

(SALT LAKE CITY)--Buprenorphine is a safe and effective drug for treating opioid addiction. But as the prescribed use of buprenorphine has dramatically increased in recent years, accidental exposure of children to the drug has risen sharply, placing them at risk for serious injury and in extremely rare cases even death, according to researchers at the Utah Poison Control Center (UPCC), U School of Medicine's Department of Family and Preventive Health, and the Utah Department of Health (UDOH).

In a study published Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Utah experts urge physicians to carefully educate their patients about the proper storage and use of buprenorphine, which is available under the names of Suboxone® (a combination with another drug) and Subutex®, about the proper storage and use of the drug. Karen C. Thomas, Pharm.D., Ph.D., certified poison information specialist at the UPCC and adjunct professor of pharmacotherapy, and Christina A. Porucznik, Ph.D., assistant professor of family and preventive medicine, led the study.

"A toddler or child who ingests buprenorphine can become extremely sick," says Thomas. "Therefore, it is critical that patients prescribed this drug understand how dangerous it can be for children and how to properly store it."

The dangers of buprenorphine exposures in children include: As opioid addiction has become an increasing problem in recent years, the number of buprenorphine prescriptions has risen markedly. A UDOH analysis of data from the Utah Controlled Substance Database shows that since 2002 the number of Utah patients prescribed buprenorphine has increased 444-fold while the number of providers prescribing the drug increased 67-fold.

In that same period, the number of accidental exposures to buprenorphine reported to the UPCC increased 13-fold and averaged 36 a year from 2009-2011. The majority of exposures of children younger than 6 required evaluation and treatment at a health care facility. Three people--one teenager and two adults--died from accidental exposure to Suboxone®.

In a letter to Utah physicians and other prescribers, UDOH and the UPCC are advising them to educate their patients in the following ways regarding accidental exposures to buprenorphine: Robert Rolfs, M.D., deputy director of UDOH, says educating buprenorphine users about the potential risk to children can prevent serious injuries.

"Buprenorphine has benefits for treating addiction to heroin and prescription opioids, but it also has risks if used or stored improperly," Rolfs says. "It is important to educate the patient on proper use and storage of the medication to protect children from the dangers described in this study."
-end-


University of Utah Health Sciences

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