Teen drug overdose deaths skyrocketed for the first time ever during pandemic

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – COVID-19 isn’t the only health crisis taking a toll on teens during the pandemic, as a new study finds the rate of adolescent drug overdoses is taking a terrifying turn for the worse. Researchers at UCLA say the rate of overdose deaths among teenagers in the United States nearly doubled in 2020 alone.

The exponential rise continued into the first half of 2021, with overdose deaths spiking by another 20 percent in comparison to rates in January 2010.

According to Joseph Friedman, an addiction researcher at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, it’s the first time in history that the teen drug death rate exponentially increased. Surprisingly, the overall rate of drug use remained the same and drug use among teens is at an all-time low.

Drug use is becoming more dangerous, not more common,” Friedman says in a university release. “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.”

Fatal overdoses affecting teens from all backgrounds

The research team gathered their data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wide-Ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research database to calculate the number of drug overdose deaths per 100,000 teens between 14 to 18 years-old. They looked at the past 10 years between January 2010 and June 2021.

In 2010, there were 518 adolescent deaths from drug overdoses — a rate of 2.4 for every 100,000 teens. The rate of overdose deaths remained steady with about 492 deaths per year through 2019. However, in 2020, the rate of deaths increased from 492 to 954 deaths. In early 2021, the number rose to 1,146 deaths, or 5.49 per 100,000.

The team also found different trends in drug overdose deaths tied to race and ethnicity:

  • Among American Indian/Alaska Natives, the overdose death rate jumped from 4.86 in 2010 to 11.79 in 2021
  • Among Black/African Americans, the rate went from 0.70 in 2010 to 3.10 in 2021
  • For Latinos, there were 62 overdose deaths in 2010 and 354 in 2021
  • For Caucasians, there were 412 deaths in 2010 and 604 in 2021

Counterfeit medications leading to more deaths

Having fake versions of prescription drugs such as Xanax, Percocet, and Vicodin played a role in the uptick in overdose deaths.

Teens urgently need to be informed about this rising danger,” Friedman says. “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.”

The findings appear in the journal JAMA.

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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