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The Making of Medicine

A Stunning Increase in Severity of Calls to U.S. Poison Centers

Troubling if somewhat unsurprising news: The severity of calls to U.S. poison centers is up sharply, including for children.

A new analysis by Christopher Holstege, MD, the director of UVA Health’s Blue Ridge Poison Center, and colleagues found that the number of calls about intentional exposures -- such as illegal drug use and suicide attempts -- that resulted in adults' deaths increased a whopping 233.9% between the beginning of 2007 and the end of 2021.

The severity of unintentional exposures, such as accidental prescription medicine overdoses, increased significantly as well. The number that resulted in severe harm, such as disfigurement or disability, increased by 37.4%, while the number resulting in death increased 65.3%. This category also includes things such as workplace poison exposures, food poisoning, animal bites and insect stings. 

Among children, the number of intentional exposures resulting in severe harm or death jumped by 76.6%, even as the total number of cases decreased by about a third. The number of unintentional exposures resulting in severe harm or death rose by 190.1% and 122.7%, respectively.

These percentages reflect more than 33.7 million poison exposures reported to the United States' 55 poison centers during the study period. The calls included almost 8 million unintentional exposures among adults 19 and older, 3.9 million intentional adult exposures, 18.7 million unintentional exposures among children and more than 1.6 million intentional pediatric exposures. 

“As a society, we should be concerned at these trends pertaining to children,” said Dr. Holstege, who is also chief of the Division of Medical Toxicology at UVA’s School of Medicine. “We need to collaboratively strategize on better delineating the root causes for such severe cases of pediatric poisonings, especially in the realms of mental health and substance use and misuse.”

Holstege and his team were inspired to launch their analysis by the increasing severity of calls to UVA's poison center, and the findings confirmed their fears that we face a nationwide problem.

“The cause for this trend is multifactorial," Dr. Holstege said. "We have experienced a growing mental health crisis in the nation’s youth, and we are finding an increasing number of dangerous novel psychoactive substances such as synthetic opioids and designer benzodiazepines entering society.”

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