Death among children and adolescents

Alternative names
Childhood and adolescent causes of death


With the exception of children under one year of age, the number one killer of children, adolescents, and young adults is ACCIDENTS.

This sad statistic holds for all ages up to 44 years. This is a statistic that can be reduced only by continued attention to safety.

A leading risk is the automobile. Most states allow adolescents to obtain a beginner’s license at age 15 and a driver’s license at 16. Adolescents have the ability to be among the best of drivers. They have quick reflexes, excellent vision and hearing (both peak during adolescence), and are capable of rapid information processing. What they do NOT have is learned automatic responses to common situations, experience, and judgment learned from years of driving.

In addition, adolescent boys often display aggressive driving, reckless driving, and a need to prove themselves. Because of these traits, boys are primarily responsible for the increased rate of deaths in their age group.

No other age group comes close to the high automobile accident mortality rate than that of young inexperienced drivers.

Insurance companies know the factors involved and have made recommendations to reduce the likelihood of teenage driving fatalities. See Automobile Safety and the Teenage Driver.


0-1 years:

  • Developmental and genetic conditions that were present at birth  
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)  
  • All conditions associated with prematurity and low birth weight

1-4 years:

  • Accidents  
  • Developmental and genetic conditions that were present at birth  
  • Cancer

5-14 years:

  • Accidents  
  • Cancer  
  • Homicide

15-24 years:

  • Accidents  
  • Homicide  
  • Suicide

There are almost twice as many deaths in the first year of life than there are in the next 13 years total. Then, the death rate rises rapidly following puberty because of the large number of fatal accidents, homicides, and suicides in the 15-24 year age group. These three causes of death in teens should all be preventable.

What is preventable?


Some congenital anomalies are not preventable. However, the number that have a recognized cause, or a genetic basis and can be diagnosed within the first two months of pregnancy, has grown enormously. These conditions, when recognized, may be preventable, or treatable while the baby is in the womb, or treated immediately upon birth.

Evaluation may include genetic screening of the parents, parental medical histories and childbearing history, chorionic villus sampling, amniocentesis, and fetal ultrasound.


SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) is probably a group of different conditions whose end result appears similar. Putting infants on their back to sleep helps reduces the chance of SIDS. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control have now recommended that infants be placed on their back for sleeping.


Death due to prematurity frequently results from inadequate prenatal care. Non-availability of medical care, not knowing the importance of prenatal care, and fear and embarrassment may all lead to a pregnant woman’s first medical visit occurring only at the time of delivery. Programs such as Baby Your Baby and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) are government- and state-sponsored programs to help with that problem.

Education about the importance of prenatal care should be made available to sexually active and pregnant teens, especially for lower income and disadvantaged individuals.


Overall teenage suicide rates in the 1990’s were higher than those in the 1980’s for all races. It is important to watch teens for signs of stress, depression and suicidal ideation (see suicidal behavior). Changes in social structure in the United States have led to increased stress, expectations, and failure on the part of the adolescent. Two-way communication between the troubled adolescent and parents or persons of trust is extremely important in preventing adolescent suicide.


This is one of the most disturbing causes of death among children and adolescents. Teenage murders should be preventable but are instead increasing dramatically. Young males in the 15-24 year age group are being murdered with increasing frequency.

Sociologists feel that the increase of gangs, teenage homicide, teenage suicide, teenage pregnancy, school drop-out and other problems are a reflection of the rapidly changing social climate, disintegration of the family structure, depersonalization of the individual, and increasing class stratification.

It is a complex issue which does not have a simple answer, but it is obvious that while the adult population is moving away from violent death, youth is not. Prevention will require understanding of the root cause and a willingness on the part of the public to change those causes.


Accidents are, by far, the leading cause of death among children and adolescents. The automobile accounts for the largest number of these accidental deaths. Make sure that all infants and children use the proper child car seats, booster seats, and seat belts.

Other top causes of accidental death are drowning, fire, falls, and poisoning.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 5, 2012
by David A. Scott, M.D.

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