Study on kids hospitalized after eating a marijuana edible shows effects of THC. Here's what parents need to know.

Experts discuss the danger of THC for kids, and how parents can keep them safe.

New research shows the effect of THC on kids.
New research shows the effect of THC on kids. (Getty Images)

Marijuana is legal for recreational use in 23 states and, with that, there has also been an increase in the use of marijuana edibles. But a new study finds that there has also been a rise in ingestions of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, in kids — and aims to find out just how much THC is toxic for children.

The study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, analyzed data from 80 children under the age of 6 (most were toddlers) who were hospitalized after eating a marijuana edible. On average, children had about 2.1 milligrams per kilogram of THC. Up to 74% of the patients experienced more than six hours of severe heart symptoms such as a slowed heart rate, respiratory issues (including heart failure and the need for supplemental oxygen) and neurological complications, including seizures and unresponsiveness.

After analyzing the data, the researchers determined that having more than 1.7 milligrams per kilogram of THC can predict severe and drawn-out symptoms of THC toxicity in children. Knowing this information, the researchers wrote in the conclusion, "may guide medical management and preventive regulations."

Marijuana legalization continues to increase around the country, making it likely that children will at least be around edibles in the future. In fact, the New Jersey Poison Control Center just reported that it helped in the medical treatment of 30 children, ranging from ages 1 to 12, who accidentally ate marijuana edibles in July alone.

What can parents who partake in marijuana edibles do to keep their kids safe? Experts break it down.

What is the danger for kids ingesting a marijuana edible?

"In a high-enough dose, THC can be toxic to anyone," Dr. Diane Calello, executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. "Because children are smaller, they get a higher dose according to their body weight."

There is a wide range of symptoms kids can develop after being exposed to marijuana, Dr. Blair Wright, a pediatrician at Northwestern Medicine Valley West Hospital in Illinois, tells Yahoo Life. "With limited exposure, children may display sleepiness, euphoria, irritability or other behavior changes. They may have a fast heart rate or high blood pressure," she says. "Sometimes, in higher levels of exposure, they can become very sleepy with [a] slow heart rate. Some kids will have nausea and vomiting, red eyes, poor balance and slurred speech." In more severe cases, "there can be life-threatening toxicity consisting of excessive and purposeless motor activity, seizures or coma," Wright says.

How can parents who use marijuana edibles protect their kids?

Marijuana edibles often look like treats, and that's a big issue when kids are around, Dr. Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. "They come in candies, cookies, chocolate ... the kind of things that a kid would look at and say, 'yum,'" she says. "I had a patient whose baby wandered over to a discarded THC cookie in a park, ate it and had to be hospitalized."

If you use marijuana edibles, it's important to view them the same way as you would other potentially dangerous substances, Dr. Christopher Kelly, vice-chief, department of emergency medicine and physician in charge of pediatric emergency medicine operations, NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. "Most parents would ensure that chemicals, poisons and alcohols are locked up and out of the reach of their children, and THC should be no different," he says. "In fact, edibles are often marketed in colorful packages that may resemble already existing candies, making them even more desirable."

Unlike alcohol and chemicals, which usually have a bitter taste that makes them less appealing to kids, edibles often taste sweet and appetizing, Fisher points out, making it even more important that they be kept away from children.

“They should be out of reach and locked away, and always in child-resistant containers," Dr. Gopi Desai, a pediatrician at NewYork-Presbyterian Medical Group Queens, tells Yahoo Life.

What should you do if your child ingests a marijuana edible?

If your child is showing symptoms that they may have ingested marijuana or you actually know they ate an edible, it's important to try to figure out how much they had, Desai says. "Look at the packaging — if it's available — to see how much THC it contains," she says. Then call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 right away. "The health care professionals answering the hotline are extremely knowledgeable about what is becoming a very common occurrence," Calello says.

"If the ingestion was witnessed and known to be a very small dose and the child has no symptoms, the poison center can guide you through careful observation at home," Dr. John Brancato, an emergency medicine physician at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. "However, because edibles so often look like candy, the ingested amount is often enough to cause significant side effects and you will be directed to the closest emergency department."

But if your child seems to have severe symptoms — they're not breathing well, they're having trouble staying alert or they're actually unconscious — "call 911 or go to an emergency room right away," Desai says.

There is no specific medication that doctors can give children to reverse cannabis poisoning, so children must be monitored and given supportive care, Wright says.

What are best practices for using marijuana edibles around kids?

Fisher recommends that parents view edibles in a similar way that they would alcohol. "Would you be drinking excessively when you're watching your child? Usually not," she says. "Ingesting a substance that's going to alter your mental status is also likely not the best thing."

If you do decide to use edibles around your child, Fisher says it's better to do it when your child is in bed at night versus when they're awake and you're watching them. It's also important to ensure that you're not planning to drive your child anywhere in the next few hours after you take it, she says.

Brancato recommends that parents be mindful about the messaging they give kids about edibles too, to lower the risk they'll be curious about them. "Parents should respect the inherent risk in these products and not imbue them with an aura of ‘funny’ or ‘cool,'" he says.

Calello stresses that parents should be cautious if they have edibles in their home. "The best-case scenario in a child who ingests edibles is that they have a short but anxious hospital stay," she says. "The worst-case scenario can be much more severe, as this study demonstrates. Children can develop seizures, stop breathing and end up in the ICU or on a ventilator."