Teen Drug Overdose Deaths Increased 19% in 2015

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Drug overdose deaths among U.S. teens edged upward in 2015, after declining for several years prior, according a new report.

The report, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), looked at drug overdose deaths among Americans ages 15 to 19 over a 16-year period, from 1999 to 2015.

The report showed that from 1999 to the mid-2000s drug overdose deaths in this age group more than doubled, from 1.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to 4.2 deaths per 100,000 people in 2007. This increase coincided with a rise in drug overdose deaths among the U.S. population as a whole, an increase that's been partly attributed to the opioid epidemic.

However, after 2007, drug overdose deaths among teens declined, reaching 3.1 deaths per 100,000 people in 2014, the report said. (This drop was driven by a decrease in drug overdose deaths among males in this age group.)

But in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, drug overdose deaths among teens increased again, to 3.7 deaths per 100,000 people, which is a 19 percent increase compared to 2014, the report said. In total, there were 772 drug overdose deaths in this age group in 2015. [America's Opioid-Use Epidemic: 5 Startling Facts]

This recent rise "certainly is a red flag," said Dr. Bradley Stein, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and senior physician policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, who was not involved in the report. However, Stein noted, because the overall number of drug overdose deaths among teens in this age group is relatively small, it's possible that the recent rise is just statistical "noise" rather than a true increase. In other words, more data will be needed to determine if this marks a new upward trend.

Still, "any uptick at all [in drug overdose deaths] is certainly something that has to get our attention," Stein said.

The majority of overdose deaths in this age group, 80 percent, were unintentional. However, the rate of suicides resulting from overdose was higher among females (22 percent) than males (13.5 percent), the study found.

The report analyzed the types of drugs involved in teen overdose deaths, finding that opioids had the highest death rate, followed by benzodiazepines (which are also known as "tranquilizers" and include drugs such as Valium and Xanax).

Stein noted that while people often focus on opioids as the biggest culprit in drug overdose deaths, it's often a combination of drugs that leads to overdose, and the mixture of opioids with benzodiazepines can be particularly deadly.

The study also found that there has been a spike in teen overdose deaths involving heroin and synthetic opioids (such as fentanyl) in recent years, while there has been a decrease in deaths involving semisynthetic opioids, which include prescription painkillers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. This mirrors a trend seen in adults and suggests that while efforts to reduce prescribing of opioid painkillers may be working, they are "not a silver bullet" for solving the opioid crisis, Stein said.

Stein said it's unclear why teen drug overdose deaths decreased from 2007 to 2014 while overdose deaths increased in other age groups during this time. But Stein speculated that efforts to prevent opioid use or educate people about the risks of these drugs might have a bigger impact in teens and might prevent them from starting in the first place. More research is needed to understand which interventions work best for which demographic groups, he said.

Still, even with prevention efforts, teens may become addicted to opioids, and there is still a need to push for better opioid addiction treatments for this age group, Stein said.

The report is published today (Aug. 16) by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.