According to a recent study in Pediatrics, the number of calls made to U.S. poison control centers for exposure to ADHD medication in children has substantially increased in the last 15 years. The details of the study can be confusing. And while the study is an important reminder to stay on top of any medication a child uses, alarming news headlines about overdoses may not paint the full picture.
We reached out to Understood experts Stephanie Sarkis, Bob Cunningham and Elizabeth Harstad to get their take. Here’s what you need to know.
Researchers looked at data on calls to U.S. poison control centers about ADHD stimulant medication from 2000 to 2014. They limited their research to kids ages 0 to 19. The authors of the study were from research institutions in Ohio, like the Center for Injury Research and Policy.
The study found that, from 2000 to 2014, there were 156,356 calls to U.S. poison controls centers about ADHD medication. The number of these calls increased by 61 percent during the 15 years.
This matched an increase in ADHD diagnoses and medication use by kids in the U.S. over the same period. According to the CDC, the number of children prescribed ADHD medication rose from 2.5 to 3.5 million from 2003 to 2011.
The researchers said the rise in calls was to be expected with more kids being treated. “The increasing number and rate of reported ADHD medication exposures is consistent with the increasing trends in ADHD diagnosis and medication prescribing,” said study author Gary A. Smith, MD, DrPH.
The researchers dove deeper. They looked at why the calls to poison control centers were being made. They also looked at the impact on the kids.
More than 80 percent of the calls involved accidents. Sometimes, very young kids found unsecured ADHD pills. In other cases, older kids who’d been prescribed ADHD medication took the wrong dose by mistake. For example, a child may have taken a second pill after forgetting about having taken one already.
In these accidental cases, there were few serious health effects. Most kids didn’t go to the hospital, or they went to a medical center and were released soon after. Only a small fraction of kids were admitted to the hospital for serious medical issues resulting from accidental exposure to ADHD medication.
However, not all the ADHD exposures were accidental. Around 15 percent of the calls involved kids who overdosed intentionally. Most were teens who abused ADHD medication. Or they were teens who tried to commit suicide. These kids had more serious medical issues, including three deaths.
Key Takeaways for Parents
“The news headline of a study like this can be downright scary,” says Cunningham. “But it’s important for parents to keep a few things in mind, and not to panic.”
“First, we may not be actually seeing an increase in the rate of ADHD medication exposure,” he notes. “More kids are being treated with medication, so it’s not surprising to see more calls. The study authors actually mentioned this.”
“Second, using ADHD medication to help kids with ADHD symptoms is safe,” he says. “In fact, the study shows that most accidents with ADHD medications, like taking a second pill by mistake, don’t result in serious health issues.”
Nevertheless, ADHD medication is powerful, he cautions. “You have to treat ADHD medication, like any other medication, with care and respect.”
Harstad agrees. “There needs to be careful storage and taking of ADHD medication,” she says. “Parents should consider using a weekly pillbox dispenser. That way they can see when and if their kids have taken their daily dose. This will also help avoid accidental double dosing.”
“It’s important to know that kids with ADHD may have more challenges keeping track of medication,” says Sarkis. This is due to issues of organization, planning, and forgetfulness. “Kids with ADHD will need supervision and support when taking medication.”
The experts also agreed that drug abuse is a serious problem in society, and that stimulant abuse can lead to addiction. “Parents should talk with their kids about the dangers of sharing ADHD medication with others,” Harstad says. “They should also tell their child’s doctor or health care provider if they suspect their child is misusing the medication. And if you think your child is at risk for depression, reach out right away for help.”
“As with any health condition or medication for your child, you need to be proactive and have good communication with your child’s doctor,” Cunningham advises.
Learn how ADHD medication affects the brain. Download an ADHD medication log for your child. And hear from a mom on how her son secured his ADHD medication in college.
Understood is not affiliated with any pharmaceutical company.
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About the author
The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.