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Teens, Drugs and Emergency Room Statistics

No parent should have to receive word that their child is overdosing, or have to personally rush them to the ER due to drug-related side effects. It's an unfortunate reality for thousands of parents each and every day, and it happens more now than ever.

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5 min read

‘How Many Teens Go to the Emergency Room?

Teen waiting in the emergency room

Several thousand young people in the U.S. visit the ER every day, for everything from sports-related injuries to symptoms of a serious illness. Substance use is an increasingly common culprit — more harmful substances are out there than ever before, and once kids get a hold of them, their growing minds and bodies are at risk for any number of severe complications.

In 2009, patients aged 20 or younger accounted for 19.1% of the 4.6 million drug-related ER visits in the U.S. This amounts to nearly 878,000 visits, or more than 2,400 a day. Around half of these cases involve substance abuse — including the use of illegal substances or prescription drug abuse.

What Problems Demand Immediate Attention?

A teen who overdosedThe potential consequences of substance abuse are wide and varied. Teens arrive at the hospital each day due to overdoses, drug withdrawal symptoms, organ failure, seizures, violent fevers and a rash of psychological disturbances including hallucinations or psychotic episodes.

Bad experiences with substance abuse can lead to car accidents, cuts or burns. They can also lead to injuries caused by self-harm, an especially common occurrence in teens with dual diagnosis (i.e. when a drug problem co-occurs with a mental health disorder).

If your teen is using, it’s impossible to predict when disaster will strike. Not only are each of these substances hazardous and potentially life-threatening — caught up in the moment, teens tend to use recklessly, abusing the drugs in ways that increase their chances of adverse reactions. Any worrisome behavior or side effect related to drug use demands medical attention. When your son or daughter’s health is on the line, it’s not worth leaving it up to chance.

Which Drugs Send Teens to the ER?

A teen preparing cocaineAlcohol is the most common cause of teen ER visits related to substance use. Underage drinking facts and statistics are stark. Because of alcohol’s prevalence in stores and houses, it’s a relatively easy-to-access substance, the abuse of which can cause addiction and death. More than 43% of the substance-related ER visits involving youths are related to alcohol consumption.

The addictive properties of marijuana make it the most commonly abused illicit drug among teens — used by 35% of 12th graders in the past year. Outside of alcohol, it’s the substance abused by teens taht lead to highest number of ER visits. Marijuana use led to more than 120,000 visits in 2013 involving patients under the age of 21. Although many teens (and even adults) view pot as practically harmless, in some cases the drug can cause rapid heartbeat, respiratory problems, a painful withdrawal and psychological problems such as paranoia.

Recent Trends

The sheer number of ER visits involving prescription drug abuse is perhaps the most alarming trend facing teens in the U.S. From 2004 to 2009, ER visits involving nonmedical use of these medications increased by more than 98%, and 45% of these cases involved patients aged 20 or younger. Many cases involve opioid abuse like oxycodone products (e.g. OxyContin) — which saw a staggering 242% increase — and hydrocodone — which rose 124.5%.

Teens take opioid painkillers for their potent numbing effects. The effects of these drugs are similar to the effects of heroin — in fact, most teens who develop painkiller problems begin as heroin users and then turn to pain pills, or vice versa. According to a 2013 study, 1 in 10 American teens receiving emergency medical attention abused prescription pills within the last year.

Ecstasy use has also led to a monumental spike in ER visits for adolescents. This stimulant drug, notorious for its use at music festivals and techno concerts (i.e. raves), causes dehydration, rapid heartbeat and other dangerous side effects. As the word of mouth about this “euphoric” drug spreads around schools, drug dealers have increasingly laced ecstasy (also called “molly”) with toxic additives, including cocaine and meth. Kids often buy these pills at concerts from complete strangers, then all too often collapse on the dancefloor from the adverse effects. From 2005 to 2011, ER visits involving kids younger than 21 abusing ecstasy increased by 128%. Among teens sent to the ER for ecstasy, 20.4% also had alcohol in their system and 14.7% had cocaine.

Synthetic designer drugs, such as synthetic marijuana and bath salts, are unique and modern phenomena. These products have recently spurred a wave of teen emergency room admissions after being sold over the counter in nationwide convenience stores. Increasing restrictions on these products has slowed the trend, but teens can still find variations on these extremely dangerous substances in certain stores or online retailers. In 2012, approximately 11% of U.S. high schoolers claimed to have used “fake weed” in the past year. More than 11,000 ER visits involved synthetic marijuana in 2010, and 75% of patients were adolescents and young adults.

What Happens After the ER?

A teen lying in the hospitalNearly 2 million kids in the U.S. meet the criteria for addiction, and countless more have underlying emotional or psychological issues that may never get treated. The biggest problem a parent could make is thinking that everything is okay once their teen gets released from the emergency room. A teen’s decision to abuse drugs or alcohol — especially to the point of requiring emergency service — is typically a window into other problems that demand help.

If your son or daughter is lucky enough to come home from the ER, find out about drug treatment options that may be available to them. Left unchecked, even a single day left to their own devices could send your child right back to drug use — and even harder than before. It’s a matter of time before they add another tally to the pile of statistics.

Reach out to local rehab counselors if you feel your child could benefit from addiction treatment, substance abuse counseling or other forms of help. Long before they risk a hospital visit, you should hopefully notice signs your child is using drugs, or indicators of mental health problems such as depression or anxiety disorders. Do whatever it takes to get them on the right path towards a healthy life, so their trip to the ER soon becomes a distant memory.

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