Teen opioid abuse and opiate addiction have become a national crisis. Indeed, prescription drug abuse and heroin addiction have resulted in teen opioid overdoses, which have become a plague on families nationwide. If you are a parent and your teenager is experimenting with prescription painkillers or heroin abuse, you are not alone. However, the rapid spread of opioid abuse in teens, whether in the form of heroin use or prescription drug addiction, cannot be ignored.
Opioid Abuse: Heroin and Prescription Drug Addiction
As a class of drugs, opioids include the illicit drug heroin as well as the prescription pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, fentanyl, and more. Opioids interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brain to produce pleasurable effects and relieve pain. In response to these effects, many teens that try opiates want more, thus becoming addicted.
When it comes to teen opioid abuse, a major problem is a teenager’s inability to comprehend his or her mortality. Teenagers always seem to believe they will be the exception to the rule. Hence, teens continue to claim that it is not dangerous to try prescription painkillers or even heroin once or twice. Indeed, teens are willing to walk on the needle’s edge.
Such a belief is more than problematic. In truth, it is downright deadly. In practice, when it comes to teen opioid abuse, nothing could be further from the truth. From penthouse apartments in Manhattan to the beach bungalows of Miami, and from the inner-city tenements of Philadelphia to the seaside mansions of Malibu, teenagers are overdosing from prescription opioid misuse and teen heroin abuse all over the country.
Along with common ADHD drugs, prescription painkillers are the most commonly abused medications by teenagers.
Teen Opioid Abuse Statistics
90% of adults who currently abuse drugs or are addicted to drugs began using before the age of 18
Teenagers had a more than four-fold increased risk of severe medical outcomes from exposure to prescription opioids compared with children ages 6 to 12 years
The number of prescriptions for opioids like OxyContin have escalated from 76 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013
The United States is by far the biggest consumer globally of prescription opioid painkillers, accounting for almost 100 percent of the world total for hydrocodone and 81 percent for oxycodone
Given the extent of the statistics presented, there is no question that the national teen opioid abuse crisis must be stemmed. Hence, proactive steps are critical. To begin to take steps forward, it’s essential to gain a better understanding of opioids and the effects of prescription drug abuse.
More teens die from prescription drug addiction and overdose than from all other illegal drugs combined.
The Three Types of Opioids
Many of those who struggle with an opiate addiction claim that opioid use is “okay” because the drug is all-natural. Although the original chemical source of opioids is the opium poppy, this claim is not true. Hence, many of the prescription painkillers being used today are human-made versions of what was once organic. Moreover, any natural opioid like morphine is never pure once it hits the streets. It has been adulterated, mixed with toxic drug cutters to reduce the drug’s power and increase the dealer’s profit margin.
The three types of opioids are as follows:
- Natural opioids are referred to as opiates. These drugs are nitrogen-containing base chemical compounds, also called alkaloids, that occur in plants such as the opium poppy. The most well-known natural opioid is morphine. However, pure morphine is almost never found, and what is now referred to as morphine on the street is quite impure.
- Semi-synthetic opioids are created in labs by both professional scientists and illegal drug chemists from natural opioids. They include hydromorphone, hydrocodone, and oxycodone as well as illicit heroin, which is derived from morphine. Hence, the majority of prescription painkillers on the market today are semi-synthetic opioids.
- Fully synthetic opioids are entirely man-made. These drugs include fentanyl, methadone, and tramadol. Although today methadone is an addiction treatment drug, it originally was developed by the Nazis as a morphine replacement during World War II. Hence, one of methadone’s original slang names was “Hitler Juice.”
What’s essential to understand is that each type of opioid is deadly when misused or abused. Also, each type of opioid can lead to opiate addiction and the high risk of teen opioid overdose. For a teen, prescription painkiller abuse is just as dangerous as heroin abuse, which is just as dangerous as morphine abuse. Thus, there is no “good” organic opioid. Indeed, every one of them is addictive and deadly.
Teenagers are at greater risk of being admitted to a hospital for prescription opioid exposure.
Abuse of Prescription Drugs and Opioid Painkillers
Today, prescription painkillers and opioid medications are some of the most commonly misused and abused drugs by teenagers. In other words, the substance use problem facing your teen is no longer relegated to drinking booze and smoking pot. Hence, the threat of drug use has become exponentially more dangerous in the 21st century.
Chemically similar to endorphins, which are the drugs that the human body produces to relieve pain naturally, prescription opioids are medications designed as painkillers. Although prescription opioids usually come in pill form, they often are crushed into a powder by opioid users and opiate addicts so the drug can either be snorted or injected. In fact, crushed pills and pill residue are very obvious signs of prescription drug abuse.
Many prescription opioid medications on the market now have abuse deterrent formulations. The deterrents in the addictive prescription pills prevent the drugs from being snorted or injected by addicts once crushed. However, many of the generic and cheaper versions of these drugs lack such deterrents.
For most people, opioid painkillers are taken for a short time as prescribed by a medical professional. When taken as prescribed, even by teenagers, they are relatively safe and can reduce pain effectively. Still, dependence and addiction always remain a huge potential risk with such drugs.
Indeed, certain people seem to be quite susceptible to opiate addiction. Such people quickly give in to the opiate high with an intense desire to achieve this state of drug intoxication over and over again. Given the power of opiate addiction, however, anyone that uses prescription opioids over an extended period will likely experience opioid dependence, facing the very real threat of becoming an addict. The bigger problem, however, is when opioids are misused and abused.
The Misuse and Abuse of Addictive Prescription Pills
The misuse and abuse of prescription drugs, particularly opioid painkiller medications, has become all too familiar in the United States. Forms of opioid abuse, such as oxycontin abuse, begins when a person takes these prescription drugs in a way that is not intended.
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, prescription opioids are misused in the following ways:
- Disregarding the instructions in regards to administration and usage given by a pharmacist after an opioid medication is prescribed
- Sharing prescriptions with another person and the taking of someone else’s opioid medication, even if it is for legitimate pain relief
- Misusing and abusing the opioid prescription medication for non-medical purposes like getting high
- Ignoring the prescription drug dosages and taking greater amounts of the opioid painkillers than as prescribed by a physician
- Adulterating an opioid medication to take it in a manner other than prescribed like crushing OxyContin or Vicodin pills into a powder form to snort or inject the drugs, thus accessing a bigger rush
- Mixing alcohol and opioids or certain other drugs against the clear warnings of a medical provider or a pharmacist
Sometimes such prescription drug misuse is a casual mistake by a young person prescribed a prescription opiate. More often, such misuse and abuse are deliberate choices to exploit the prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes. In either case, the dangers of prescription drug misuse and opioid abuse are real, leading to deadly consequences.
A key question to ask is why so many people end up misusing and abusing prescription painkillers. Why are opioid abuse and opiate addiction becoming so common, particularly in light of the rash of deadly overdoses? To understand this question, it’s essential to understand how prescription opioids affect the human brain.
“There is growing evidence to suggest a relationship between increased non-medical use of opioid analgesics and heroin abuse in the United States”
— Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse
Opioid-related hospitalizations attributed to suicide attempts by teenagers more than doubled in recent years.
From Abuse of Prescription Drugs to Heroin Addiction
When it comes to opiate addiction, teen prescription drug abuse usually begins with medications prescribed for a sports injury or taken from the medicine cabinet of a family member. Indeed, there are too many stories of teenagers stealing drugs from their grandparents or other family members with a cancer diagnosis or a chronic pain condition.
Such prescription medications, however, tend to be in short supply which makes prescription drug abuse, such as oxycontin abuse, very expensive. Moreover, in the face of the national opioid abuse epidemic, physicians limit the number of addictive prescription pills and future drug refills even for the most serious cancer patients. Hence, there is only so much to go around, and the prescription drug supply does not reflect the need of people that become opioid dependent or experience prescription drug addiction.
Additionally, as an addictive substance, opioid abuse leads not only to dependence and addiction but also to an increased tolerance. In other words, very quickly, teen opioid abusers end up chasing the high. They find themselves needing more and more drugs to obtain the original feeling produced by the opiates. In addition, that same high is never again possible after the first instance of use.
Once teen opioid abusers are unable to get prescriptions from doctors or steal drugs from family members, they find themselves in a bind. On the street, prescription drugs are prohibitively expensive. Since heroin is often cheaper and even easier to access, people who have become addicted to prescription pain medications switch to the illegal drug.
Incredibly, nearly 80 percent of people addicted to heroin started first with prescription opioids. Only a small percentage of people on prescription drugs end up using heroin, but that small percentage is not a small number. With millions of people being prescribed prescription opioids in the United States, this cycle of addiction leads to thousands upon thousands of new heroin users in the past few years.
Opioid analgesics are another way of saying prescription painkillers. Dr. Volkow means that prescription drug misuse opens the door to heroin abuse and other forms of opiate addiction time and time again.
Given this startling connection, what do you know about heroin? You probably need to know more to protect your teenager from opiate addiction.
Extracted from the resin of the seed pod of the opium poppy plant, then synthesized by street chemists, heroin’s color and look depend on how it is made and what else it may be mixed with. It can be white or brown powder or a black, sticky substance called “black tar heroin” that mainly comes from Mexico.
Opening the door to further drug abuse, teen heroin abusers often combine the street concoction with other drugs. Arguably, the most popular combination is heroin and cocaine smoked or injected together. In the injectable form, the mix of the two drugs is called a “speedball,” a particularly dangerous combo that significantly raises the risk of overdose.
Even with the added street adulterants and the viral dangers like HIV and hepatitis C that come with injecting any drugs, heroin is not the most dangerous opioid being abused. Even beyond heroin, the most dangerous opioid now available is fentanyl, both the prescription drug and the highly adulterated street variation.
The Signs of Teen Opioid Abuse
Given the severity of the teen opioid abuse crisis and the perpetually increasing number of teens suffering from opiate addiction, you need to know the potential signs that your teen might be experimenting with prescription opioid misuse or even using heroin or street fentanyl. Although one of these signs alone can simply mean that your child is a normal teen, several of them together can indicate a bigger problem. Without a clear explanation, you must take action to protect your teenager:
- Suddenly getting into trouble at school and with authority figures across the board in their life
- Making poor decisions and engaging in risky behaviors
- Changing social circles and being secretive about new “friends”
- Excessive mood swings not connected to obvious social or environmental factors
- A sudden change in grades and a loss of interest in school
- Out-of-character aggression with friends and family that is centered around secretive actions like sneaking out late at night
- Medication missing from medicine cabinets
- Stealing money or other valuable items to pawn for cash
- Needles, cotton swabs, burnt spoons or burnt tinfoil found in their possession or in their room
Such signs of potential opioid abuse in teens can be hard to face. Indeed, it can be beyond challenging as a parent to know what actions to take. Given the difficult challenges presented by opioid withdrawal and how hard it is to detox from the drug, there is no question that professional help is needed.
Teen Opioid Treatment and Help
When it comes to teen rehab support for an opiate or prescription drug addiction, doctors should help move your teen beyond the initial withdrawal symptoms so sustainable recovery can be achieved. The earlier a teen opioid abuse problem is identified, the better the chances are for long term recovery. Teen rehab is essential for effective teen opioid treatment.
As a parent, the first step is taking the proper action to help your teenager in crisis. Given the stakes, please make the correct, and more importantly, the safe choice and contact an addiction professional today to assess and further access the help your teen needs.