Statistics from Cook Children’s Emergency Department Show Increase in Marijuana Ingestion Among Children Ages 0-3
Parents and caregivers must take steps to keep their children safe from marijuana edibles. Keep marijuana edibles locked up and stored out of reach.
By Jean Yaeger
The number of babies and toddlers who screened positive for marijuana in the Emergency Department at Cook Children’s continued trending up in 2022.
Last year’s data show 33 patients between ages 0-3 whose urine tested positive for a molecule called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in the cannabis plant. Back in 2019, there were just eight patients from the same age group with THC-positive urine. The number climbed to 13 patients in 2020, and to 29 patients in 2021.
Doctors at Cook Children’s say the marijuana intoxication cases they see in babies and toddlers are caused by accidental ingestion of edibles. Edibles are marijuana-infused food items such as gummies or other candy, cookies, brownies, beverages and other products. They aren’t safe for children to consume.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites the longer-lasting and unpredictable effects of edibles, in which the strength of the ingredients might not be known. Ingestion can cause altered mental status, extreme sleepiness, high heart rate and trouble breathing in young children.
“We’re not here to judge but to provide a warning that if you’re going to have these in your home, you really need to lock them up so that kids can’t access them,” said Daniel Guzman, M.D., who works in the Cook Children’s Emergency Department (ED).
Teenagers made up the majority of the 693 patients in the ED who tested positive for THC in the urine screenings last year. Even though there were far fewer younger patients affected overall, any ingestion by babies and toddlers raises concern. To a curious child, a candy or cookie edible looks like something good to eat.
Recreational marijuana use is illegal in Texas. But a product called delta-8, derived from legally grown hemp, is legal to buy and sell as long as THC levels are less than 0.3%. Delta-8 concentrated in a lab can produce a “high” similar to marijuana. Also, low-level THC medical marijuana can be prescribed in Texas for patients with conditions such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.
Medical experts point out that any amount of drug will have a much greater impact on a child’s small body than on an adult. They urge precautions by all caregivers – parents, older siblings, grandparents and babysitters - to prevent the youngest and most vulnerable from swallowing any edibles they happen to find on a nightstand, in a purse, in a vehicle or in other locations. A preschool in Prosper made national headlines last Halloween after four children became ill following alleged exposure to THC.
What are the signs of marijuana intoxication? How is it treated?
Abnormal behavior, extreme sleepiness and unresponsiveness are red flags for marijuana ingestion. When children come to the ED with those symptoms, doctors try to rule out other possible causes such as infection or traumatic brain injury.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of kids who have had marijuana ingestion or use over the last couple of years,” Dr. Guzman said. If doctors suspect the child might have eaten a marijuana edible, they will ask the parents or caregivers about any drugs in the home.
“It’s a fair question to ask given the breadth of kids coming in with accidental ingestions. It’s not to judge anybody – we just want to know what we’re dealing with so that we can treat it quickly and know what to expect.”
It takes about three hours to get results from THC tests in the urine samples. Meanwhile, supportive care is provided while the intoxicating effects wear off, usually within about 12 hours. Dr. Guzman said the medical team will monitor the patient’s vital signs and fluids, protect the airway, and watch for worsening symptoms. If the patient’s breathing rate becomes short and shallow, he said, extra oxygen or a breathing tube could be needed.
Children diagnosed with marijuana ingestion can typically be discharged to go home from the ED after they become alert, act playful, and resume eating and drinking, Dr. Guzman said. More serious cases require further care in the Medical Center.
Admitted to the Hospital
Kyle Brady, D.O., a pediatric hospitalist at Cook Children’s, said sometimes it takes longer for young patients’ bodies to eliminate the drug. They remain extremely sleepy. The medical team waits and observes. An electrocardiogram (EKG) may be needed to measure the patient’s heart rhythm during recovery.
“The big thing is doing neuro checks and making sure they’re arousable,” Dr. Brady said. “With the ingestive THC, your liver has to process that chemical, and it just takes time. The smaller you are with how strong some of these compounds are, it can be a few days that we see them in the hospital.”
Severe cases of marijuana ingestion are linked to high concentrations of THC, he said. “It can be very scary and worrisome to both the parent and the provider,” Dr. Brady said.
Before he will discharge a patient from the hospital following marijuana ingestion, Dr. Brady wants to see that they’re completely awake, playing, eating and able to crawl or walk appropriately for their age.
What safety tips do the experts at Cook Children’s recommend? Keep marijuana edibles locked up and stored out of reach. And make sure babysitters and grandparents understand those products are harmful to children, even though they look attractive.
“A little kid should not be ingesting THC, and if you as a parent are using it recreationally, you need to use it responsibly and you need to treat it as you would any kind of alcohol product or any kind of household chemical,” Dr. Brady said.
Dr. Guzman pointed out that parents and caregivers must take steps to keep their children safe around firearms and swimming pools. Safety measures apply to marijuana edibles too.
“It’s all about access,” he said. “If we can be responsible adults when it comes to any of these injury prevention areas, then we can keep our kids from getting hurt.”
If you think your child has ingested marijuana, get medical help or call the Texas Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222. For more information: Marijuana Edibles - Texas Poison Center Network (poisoncontrol.org)