The Full Story
Buprenorphine is the active ingredient in the brand name medications Suboxone® and Subutex®. It is a medication used for pain control in both humans and pets. It is also used to treat opioid dependence in adults. It is almost never prescribed to children.
At one time, patients who were addicted to heroin or other opioids could only be treated in a "methadone clinic" or other center. Patients had to go back every day; multiple days of treatment were dispensed only for weekends.
In 2000, the Drug Addiction Treatment Act allowed physicians with special training to prescribe buprenorphine to these patients. Now patients could be treated privately, in their physicians' offices. With easier access to their medication and proper monitoring by their doctor, people would be more likely to stay in treatment. But, because buprenorphine became more available in homes, there were more opportunities for buprenorphine poisonings to occur in both adults and children.
Buprenorphine comes in two forms, as a tablet or a film. A "film" is a thin, rapidly dissolving strip that contains medication. Both are used by holding in the mouth. This allows better absorption of the medication. Since they are designed to be held in the mouth, they are pleasantly flavored.
Small children may mistake buprenorphine pills or films for candy. The source is usually a caregiver, a parent, or a visiting relative or friend. The exposure happens most often in the child's own home. A small child who chews, licks, or swallows only part of a tablet may become unresponsive, stop breathing, or even die. Common symptoms of buprenorphine poisoning in children are drowsiness, vomiting, slow breathing, increased heart rate, and agitation.
Also, teenagers may abuse buprenorphine to get high or to harm themselves.
Anyone who uses buprenorphine must take extra precautions to keep it away from children.
If anyone is unintentionally exposed to buprenephrine, or takes too much, use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 right away.
Take Home Message:
- Buprenorphine is prescribed for adults being treated for opioid dependence or chronic pain. It is also prescribed as a pain medication for pets after surgery.
- Common symptoms of buprenorphine poisoning in children are drowsiness, vomiting, slow breathing, increased heart rate, and agitation. Coma and death have also been reported.
- Most buprenorphine poisoning in children occurs due to improper storage of the medication in the home.
Nicole Reid, RN, BSN, MEd
Certified Specialist in Poison Information
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