Overdose deaths due to fentanyl in teen spiked during pandemic

Exponential rise in death rate is historic, even as adolescent drug use is low.

The opioid fentanyl caused drug overdose deaths to nearly double for U.S. teens, a historic increase even as drug use remained stable during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study.

Overdose deaths jumped in 2020 and rose 20% the first half of 2021, compared to the decade before the pandemic.

It was the first time in recorded history that the teen drug death rate had an exponential rise, even though rates of illicit drug use among teens are at all-time lows, lead author Joseph Friedman, MD, said in a press release.

“Drug use is becoming more dangerous, not more common,” said Friedman, an addiction researcher and PhD. candidate at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California – Los Angeles. “The increases are almost entirely due to illicit fentanyls, which are increasingly found in counterfeit pills. These counterfeit pills are spreading across the nation, and teens may not realize they are dangerous.”

The study, “Trends in Drug Overdose Deaths Among U.S. Adolescents, January 2010 to June 2021,” was published in the journal JAMA.

The researchers used Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data to calculate drug overdose deaths per 100,000 population for adolescents aged 14 to 18 years that occurred from January 2010 to June 2021.

They found 518 deaths, or a rate of 2.4 per 100,000, among adolescents in 2010, and a steady rate of 492 deaths, a rate of 2.36 per 100,000, each subsequent year through 2019.

In 2020, there was a sharp increase to 954 deaths, or 4.57 per 100,000. In early 2021, there were 1,146 deaths, a rate of 5.49 per 100,000.

Fake versions of prescription drugs such as Xanax, Percocet and Vicodin, whose strength can fluctuate, also contributed toward the increase in overdose deaths, Friedman said in the press release.

“Teens urgently need to be informed about this rising danger,” Friedman said. “Accurate information about the risk of drugs needs to be presented in schools. Teens need to know that pills and powders are the highest risk for overdose, as they are most likely to contain illicit fentanyls. Pills and powders can be tested for the presence of fentanyls using testing strips, which are becoming more widely available.”

In addition, education and access to naloxone, which can reverse overdoses, are needed in schools and places frequented by teens, he said.

This article was originally published by sister publication Medical Economics.