Sharp rise in UK teen poisonings over past 20 years, particularly among girls

16 May 2016 23:30:00.000

PA 115/16

The number of teenage poisonings over the past 20 years in the UK has risen sharply, particularly among girls, according to a new study by researchers at The University of Nottingham. 

The study is the largest of its kind and also reveals that those teenagers living in the most deprived areas of the UK are 2 to 3 times as likely to poison themselves, either deliberately or unintentionally, compared to teenagers in the least deprived areas. The research is published online in the BMJ’s Injury Prevention. 

Poisoning is one of the most common causes of death among teens worldwide, with much of it related to self–harm, which in turn is often closely linked to mental health problems.

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Trends over time

Most of the evidence on the incidence and risk factors for poisonings is restricted to data on hospital admissions or emergency care visits, with little information on time trends. 

In a bid to rectify this, the researchers reviewed anonymised general practice records submitted to the UK Health Improvement Network database (THIN) between 1992 and 2012 on poisonings—both deliberate and unintentional—for more than 1.3 million 10 to 17 year olds. 

In all, there were 17,862 cases of poisoning among the teens between 1992 and 2012. 

They calculated the incidence rates per 100,000 person years—in other words, the number of poisonings occurring in 100,000 young people in a year—for all poisonings; intentional poisonings; unintentional poisonings; those of unknown intent; and alcohol related poisonings, broken down by age, sex, calendar period and level of socioeconomic deprivation, as measured by the Townsend Index.

Gender divide 

Leading the research, Dr Edward Tyrrell from the University’s Division of Primary Care, said: “Our analysis revealed that the overall numbers of new cases of recorded teen poisonings rose by 27% between 1992 and 2012 from 264.1/100,000 person-years to 346.8/100,000 person–years.

“The largest increases during this period were seen for intentional poisonings among 16-17 year old girls and for alcohol related poisonings among 15-16 year old girls, both of which roughly doubled. 

“Between 2007 and 2012 almost two thirds (64%) of poisonings were recorded as intentional, with only 4% unintentional. Some 16% were related to alcohol, while the intent was unknown in 16% of cases. 

“There was a clear gender divide in the poisoning rates, with sex differences in intentional and alcohol related poisonings widening over time. The rate of poisoning in boys/young men was less than half that in girls/young women, and this was particularly true of intentional poisonings which were 80% lower in boys/young men. Alcohol related poisonings were 10% lower in boys/young men.” 

Deprivation link

The study concludes that overall rates were strongly linked to socioeconomic deprivation, with those from the most deprived areas two to three times more likely to have a poisoning than those from the least deprived areas. The link with poverty and deprivation did not reduce over time, and may reflect a difference in levels of mental anguish, stress, and social and psychological support. 

Dr Tyrrell said there are caveats to the findings. “We must consider whether this [the increasing rates seen among young women] reflects real changes, increased health seeking behaviour or changes in GP coding practices, or popular trends, such as clinicians perceiving intentional poisonings as more frequent and therefore recording events as such. 

“One potential explanation for the increase in alcohol poisonings over time is increased availability, with the relative affordability of alcohol in the UK increasing steadily between 1980 and 2012, licensing hours having increased since 2003, and numbers of outlets increasing alongside alcohol harm. 

He concludes: “Since intentional and alcohol related adolescent poisoning rates are increasing, both child and adolescent mental health and alcohol treatment service provision needs to be commissioned to reflect this changing need. Social and psychological support for adolescents should be targeted within more deprived communities to help reduce the current social inequalities.” 

Research: Changes in poisonings among adolescents in the UK between 1992 and 2012: a population based cohort study  doi 10.1136/injuryprev-2015-041901 Journal: Injury Prevention 

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and the winner of ‘Outstanding Support for Early Career Researchers’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2015. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK by research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for four years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Edward Tyrrell in the School of Medicine, University of Nottingham on 44 (0) 115 846 6917,

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