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Study Shows Likely Heroin Use in Teens Who Abuse Opioids

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A study performed by the University of Southern California indicates that teenagers who abuse opioids are more likely to use heroin. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics (JAMA). Researchers monitored 14-and 15-year-old students in California who had never used heroin over the course of 42 months. The students were grouped according to nonmedical opioid use at the beginning of the study, with some having never used opioids, some having used opioids previously, and some who currently used opioids. At the end of the study, the probability of heroin use for these groups was described:

  • Students who had never used prescription opioids for nonmedical use had a 1.7% likelihood of using heroin.
  • Students who had previously used prescription opioids for nonmedical use had a 10.7% likelihood of using heroin.
  • Students who began the study using prescription opioids for nonmedical use had a 13.1% likelihood of using heroin.

While researchers explain that additional studies are needed, the numbers indicate some connection between opioid and heroin use in adolescence.

Do Opioids Lead to Hard Drugs in Teens?

Heroin is a kind of opioid, which is a drug that stimulates the brain to feel pleasure. Opioids may be prescribed to teens after injury or surgery, such as wisdom tooth removal. Opioids are highly addictive. Once a prescription runs out or a teen loses access to the drug, they may seek the same kind of experience to feed their addiction. This can lead to illegal procurement of dangerous drugs.

Experts published in JAMA Pediatrics indicate that opioid use as a young person is related to opioid abuse later in life. One of the ways that medical providers can address this issue is by adhering to strict prescribing practices. Between 1997 and 2012, hospitalizations for pediatric patients who had experienced opioid poisoning doubled. Intake information for hospitals nationwide indicated a 165% increase in opioid poisonings for children between the ages of one and 19. 

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2015, 4,236 youth between the ages of 15 and 24 died due to drug overdose. At least half of those deaths were linked to opioid misuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that, in 2016, 153,000 people between the ages of 12 and 17 had an opioid use disorder. Many teens obtain drugs from family or friends or through online purchases. These can include prescription opioids and heroin.

Symptoms of Opioid Abuse

The study from researchers at USC presents compelling evidence that there may be a link between prescription opioid misuse and heroin. The habits that lead to addiction can be established in the teenage years and can cause issues with keeping a job, staying in school, or even overdosing. Drug abuse can be identified by parents and should be addressed with treatment as soon as possible to prevent long-term addiction issues. Some of the symptoms of opioid abuse in teens may include:

  • Presence of drugs or drug paraphernalia in a teen’s room
  • Nasal issues, including sniffing or running nose
  • Mood swings or personality changes
  • Aggression or anxiety
  • Lack of hygiene or grooming
  • Change in friends
  • Secrecy
  • Stealing money

The teen years are full of experimentation. However, as this study indicates, experimenting with something as dangerous as opioids could lead to long-term issues. If you or someone you know is struggling with drug abuse, it is never too early to reach out and get help. At Next Generation Village, we are here for you. 


Department of Health and Human Services. “Opioids and Adolescents.” Accessed August 16, 2019.

Gagne, Joshua J. et al. “Trends in Opioid Prescription in Children and Adolescents in a Commercially Insured Population in the United States, 2004-2017.” Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, November 12, 2018. Accessed August 16, 2019.

Gaither, Julie R. et al. “National Trends in Hospitalizations for Opioid Poisonings Among Children and Adolescents, 1997 to 2012.” Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, December 2016. Accessed August 16, 2019.

Kelley-Quon, Lorraine I. et al. “Association of Nonmedical Prescription Opioid Use With Subsequent Heroin Use Initiation in Adolescents.” Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, July 8, 2019. Accessed August 16, 2019.

Volkow, Nora D. “Letter to Teens.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, July 2018. Accessed August 16, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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