The rate of overdose deaths among U.S. teenagers nearly doubled in 2020, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, and rose another 20 percent in the first half of 2021 compared with the 10 years before the pandemic, even as drug use remained generally stable during the same period, according to new UCLA research announced this week.

It is the first time in recorded history that the teen drug death rate has seen an exponential rise, said lead author Dr. Joseph Friedman, an addiction researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

It is due to drug use becoming not more common, but more dangerous, he said.

“The increases are almost entirely due to illicit fentanyls, which are increasingly found in counterfeit pills,” Friedman said. “These counterfeit pills are spreading across the nation, and teens may not realize they are dangerous.”

The study is published in JAMA—the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The researchers used the CDC WONDER (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wide-Ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research) database to calculate drug overdose deaths per 100,000 population for adolescents aged 14 to 18 years that occurred from January 2010 to June 2021.

They found 518 deaths, or a rate of 2.4 per 100,000, among adolescents in 2010, and a steady rate of 492 deaths (2.36 per 100,000) each subsequent year through 2019. In 2020, there was a sharp increase to 954 deaths (4.57 per 100,000), rising to 1,146 deaths (5.49 per 100,000) in early 2021.

Fake versions of prescription drugs such as Xanax, Percocet and Vicodin, whose strength can fluctuate, also contributed toward the increase in overdose deaths, Friedman noted.

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

In addition, education and access to naloxone, which can reverse overdoses, are needed in schools and places frequented by teens, he said.

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