The National Poison Data System received nearly 190,000 reports about people under age 20 taking prescription opioids from 2000 to 2015, according to a study published Monday.
Increases include suicide attempts by teens as well as children accidentally getting access to opioid medication meant to treat addiction.
Nearly 96 percent of the exposures occurred in homes, with children through age 5 making up almost 60 percent of the cases. Among adolescents, nearly 72 percent of the drug-taking was intentional, with more than 34 percent classified as suicide attempts and almost 21 percent considered "recreational use."
"The one thing that we have to realize is, when prescription pain medicines are brought into the home, it puts our children in danger," said Kevin Osterhoudt, medical director of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's poison control center, which contributed to the report.
During the years studied, prescriptions for pain medications soared, with 80 percent of the worldwide prescriptions for opioids distributed in the United States. According to a Yale University study published late last year, hospital admissions for opioid poisoning increased 165 percent for children ages 1 to 19 from 1997 to 2012.
According to the new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, nearly a quarter of all high school seniors had exposure to prescription opioids, either because they were under a doctor's care or because they took someone else's medicines.
"These exposures can lead to future use of illegal substances; almost 80 percent of new heroin users have previously used opioid pain medications," the report says.
Even the seemingly good news in the report was relative. While overall opioid exposures by children climbed 86 percent from 2000 to 2009, episodes declined afterward. The exceptions were an uptick in exposures to buprenorphine, an opioid medication used to treat opioid addiction. Nearly 90 percent of those reports pertained to children 5 or under. The rate of suspected suicide by teenagers from 2000 through 2015 increased almost 53 percent, according to the study.
Osterhoudt added a caution to the report's findings of a decline. "When we look at ER visits, we haven't necessarily seen the decline since 2009," he said.
The data regarding teenagers could be undercounts, he suggested. Teenagers are less likely than adults to report problems regarding a drug. Emergency rooms, overburdened with cases, may not report every incident, he said.
The largest share of children 5 or younger who took the opioids got into medicines stored within their sight, while about 14 percent found medicine inappropriately stored and a little more than 13 percent got the drugs from a woman's purse.