Signs, treatments and preventative measures for THC poisoning in kids
In recent years, as marijuana has been legalized in many states in the U.S. and manufactured into cannabis products available for purchase, unintentional marijuana poisonings have increased in children.
CHOC at Mission Hospital has seen four patients under the age of 10 for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) poisoning in the past year alone.
The culprit? THC gummies.
THC gummies and other cannabis edibles
THC gummies — also known as weed gummies or marijuana gummies — are edible cannabis products that are infused with THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. THC is what gives users a sense of a “high.” THC gummies can often look just like regular candy, making them a tempting snack for kids.
In addition to gummies, other edible cannabis products containing THC may include:
- Chocolate bars, candies, lollipops, fudge, popcorn and ice cream.
- Baked items like cookies, brownies and cupcakes.
- Sweetened beverages like soda and lemonade.
These cannabis products often look like a real piece of candy, brownie or sweet treat. But just one serving may contain several times the recommended dose of THC for adults, making children very sick. Frequently, they may require a trip to the emergency department or hospitalization.
THC gummies are not to be confused with CBD gummies. Although both come from the cannabis plant, THC gummies can contain more than 20% THC while CBD gummies legally must contain less than 0.3% THC.
Although CBD is less likely to make children experience symptoms of a “high,” the safety and effectiveness of CBD for children is still being researched. Parents should practice caution when storing and using CBD gummies at home.
Parents unaware of the effects and concentration of THC in edibles
Bronwyn Stackleather, director of clinical services at CHOC Mission, says, “There is a common theme of not knowing what THC gummies are or what the effects might be and confusing them with real candy. One parent mistakenly offered the gummy to their child thinking it was candy.”
Edible THC products take longer than smoked marijuana to have an effect. Smoking takes just seconds to minutes, but an edible containing THC typically takes 30 to 60 minutes after being eaten and digested. The peak effect typically happens three to four hours after ingesting. Because of this, kids might accidentally consume large amounts of THC before feeling or showing any effects.
The concentration and strength of THC in these edible products is very difficult to measure and is often unknown. Consuming even a small amount of THC in a gummy or baked item can cause kids to experience symptoms of a marijuana overdose.
Children who have consumed cannabis edibles may:
- Act lethargic.
- Feel dizzy.
- Have trouble walking or sitting up.
- Have an accelerated heart rate.
- Have trouble breathing.
THC poisonings on the rise
The American Association of Poison Control Centers reports receiving 4,329 calls about poisonings for kids under 12 years involving cannabis edibles containing THC — a significant increase from 3,132 calls in 2020; 1,364 calls in 2019; and just 187 calls in 2016.
Dr. Gary Goodman, medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at CHOC Mission, says, “Education for parents about the effects of THC gummies and other edibles is vital. Of course, kids are going to gravitate to yummy-looking candy and sweet treats. But these products can be confusing for parents to navigate.”
Keep an eye out for confusing THC packaging
Manufactured cannabis edibles containing THC have often been packaged to look just like regular foods. In recent years, many states — including California — have put laws in place to make sure that marijuana edible packages are clearly marked and not enticing for children.
The California Department of Cannabis Control states that cannabis edible products must include child-resistance packaging and display clear labeling of what the product is made from. They cannot include labeling that is attractive to children like cartoons and images, or using labeling products with words like “candy,” “kandy,” and “kandeez.”
The Department also states that the universal symbol for cannabis must be included on the label of all cannabis goods sold in California. Parents should be on the lookout for the following symbol when determining if a product contains cannabis:
However, packaging regulations aren’t always enough to keep THC gummies and other edibles out of the hands of little ones.
Preventing kids from eating THC gummies and edibles
To protect your children from eating THC gummies and edibles, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests the following:
Store the products safely.
Treat marijuana products like you would your medications. Store your medications out of sight and reach of your children, or in a locked medication box. Make sure the products are in child-resistant packaging or containers. Clearly label your THC products and store them in their original packaging. Also, consider limiting the number of edible products stored at home in case your children get into them.
Use edibles with caution.
Parents who choose to consume THC products for medical reasons or recreation should not do so in front of their kids. Seeing these products consumed may create temptation for kids to try them. Parents should also be sure that the products are not impairing their ability to safely take care of their children; they should not drive if they have consumed marijuana edible products.
Talk to friends, family and caregivers.
If anyone is visiting your home to spend time with your children, ask them if they use cannabis edibles. If so, make sure they are safely stored out of reach and that they aren’t being used in front of your children.
What to do if your child eats THC gummies or edibles
If your child unintentionally eats a cannabis edible, try to find out what and how much they ate. Check the product’s packaging to see how much THC it contains. Call the free poison control hotline as soon as possible at 1-800-222-1222.
If your child’s symptoms seem severe, call 911 or visit your nearest emergency department.
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