Despite warnings that children and codeine are a bad mix, doctors continue to prescribe the opioid to youngsters at alarming rates, UC San Francisco researchers have revealed.
Doctors at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital conducted a recent study and found that although doctors have been urged to promote less dangerous medicines to kids, including ibuprofen or hydrocodone, emergency rooms across the United States are still handing over codeine to children like it's candy.
Codeine is an opioid used to treat mild and moderate pain as well as suppress coughs. But because children process the drug so differently, one-third get no relief from it while up to 1 in 12 kids can accumulate toxic amounts, causing breathing to slow, and possibly death, researchers say.
All this information led several national and international organizations to advise against codeine use in children. According to UCSF, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines in 1997 and again in 2006 warned the medical field of the drug's potential dangers and lack of effectiveness. In addition, the American College of Chest Physicians also said codeine was a bad idea for children.
But until now, it was unclear just how much codeine was being handed out to kids in emergency rooms. To get a better handle on this situation, UCSF researchers used data from the National Hospital and Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, to figure out how often codeine was being prescribed to kids between the ages of three and 17 from 2001 to 2010.
Although UCSF researchers say codeine prescriptions decreased from 3.7 percent to 2.9 percent during the 10-year period, an alarming number of children were still being prescribed the drug. Specifically, there were between 559,000 and 877,000 prescriptions for children every year.
Some other facts:
According to Dr. Sunitha Kaiser, UCSF assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital San Francisco and lead author of the study, ibuprofen is equal to, if not better than codeine for treating injury pain, and hydrocodone is also a safer, more effective opiate. Also, good 'ol fashioned dark honey is healthier and more effective than over-the-counter medicines for coughs.
"[Codeine] can be prescribed in any clinical setting, so it is important to decrease codeine prescription to children in other settings such as clinics and hospitals, in addition to emergency rooms."