Adolescent Overdose Deaths Nearly Doubled in 2020 and Spiked Again in 2021

Marcia Frellick

April 12, 2022

The number of overdose deaths in adolescents nearly doubled in 2020 from the year before and increased substantially again in 2021 after nearly a decade of fairly stable rates, according to data published in a JAMA research letter.

Most of the deaths involved fentanyl, the researchers found.

Joseph Friedman, MPH, of the Center for Social Medicine and Humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, led the study, which analyzed adolescent (14-18 years old) overdose deaths in the United States from 2010 to June 2021 in light of increasing contamination in the supply of illicit drugs.

The researchers found there were 518 deaths among adolescents (2.40 per 100,000 population) in 2010, and the rates remained stable through 2019 with 492 deaths (2.36 per 100,000).

In 2020, however, deaths spiked to 954 (4.57 per 100 000), increasing by 94.3%, compared with 2019. In 2021, they increased another 20%.

The rise in fentanyl-involved deaths was particularly striking. Fentanyl-involved deaths increased from 253 (1.21 per 100,000) in 2019 to 680 (3.26 per 100,000) in 2020. The numbers through June 2021 were annualized for 2021 and calculations predicted 884 deaths (4.23 per 100,000) for the year.

Numbers point to fentanyl potency

In 2021, more than three-fourths (77.14%) of adolescent overdose deaths involved fentanyl, compared with 13.26% for benzodiazepines, 9.77% for methamphetamine, 7.33% for cocaine, 5.76% for prescription opioids, and 2.27% for heroin.

American Indian and Alaska Native adolescents had the highest overdose rate in 2021 (n = 24; 11.79 per 100,000), followed by Latinx adolescents (n = 354; 6.98 per 100,000).

“These adolescent trends fit a wider pattern of increasing racial and ethnic inequalities in overdose that deserve further investigation and intervention efforts,” the authors wrote.

Pandemic’s role unclear

The spikes in adolescent overdoses overlap the COVID-19 pandemic, but Friedman said in an interview the pandemic “may or may not have been a big factor."

The authors wrote that drug use had generally been stable among adolescents between 2010 and 2020. The number of 10th graders reporting any illicit drug use was 30.2% in 2010 and 30.4% in 2020.

“So it’s not that more teens are using drugs. It’s just that drug use is becoming more dangerous due to the spread of counterfeit pills containing fentanyls,” Friedman said.

The authors noted that “the illicit drug supply has increasingly become contaminated with illicitly manufactured fentanyls and other synthetic opioid and benzodiazepine analogues.”

Mr. Friedman said the pandemic may have accelerated the spread of more dangerous forms of drugs as supply chains were disrupted.

Benjamin Brady, DrPH, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson, who also has an appointment in the university’s Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center, said in an interview the numbers that Friedman and colleagues present represent “worst fears coming true.”

He said he and his colleagues in the field “were anticipating a rise in overdose deaths for the next 5-10 years because of the way the supply-and-demand environment exists in the U.S.”

Brady explained that restricting access to prescription opioids has had an unfortunate side effect in decreasing access to a safer supply of drugs.

“Without having solutions that would reduce demand at the same rate, supply of the safer form of the drug has been reduced; that has pushed people toward heroin and street drugs and from 2016 on those have been adulterated with fentanyl,” he said.

He said the United States, compared with other developed nations, has been slower to embrace longer-term harm-reduction strategies and to improve access to treatment and care.

COVID likely also has exacerbated the problem in terms of isolation and reduction in quality of life that has adolescents seeking to fill that void with drugs, Brady said. They may be completely unaware that the drugs they are seeking are commonly cut with counterfeit fentanyl.

“Fentanyl can be up to 50 times stronger than heroin,” he noted. “Even just a little bit of fentanyl dramatically changes the risk profile on an overdose.”

Increasing rates of mental health concerns among adolescents over decades also contribute to drug-seeking trends, Brady noted.

Overdose increases in the overall population were smaller

In the overall population, the percentage increases were not nearly as large in 2020 and 2021 as they were for adolescents.

Rates of overdose deaths in the overall population increased steadily from 2010 and reached 70,630 in 2019. In 2020, the deaths increased to 91,799 (an increase of 29.48% from 2019) and increased 11.48% in 2021.

The researchers analyzed numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention WONDER (Wide-Ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research) database, which has records of all U.S. deaths for which drug overdose was listed as the underlying cause.

The authors and Brady report no relevant financial relationships.

This story originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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