Heroin: A Dangerous Path
For many teens, a heroin addiction begins with an addiction to another sort of drug that’s widely available: an opioid pain medication. Drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin are widely available in family medicine cabinets, and they’re easy targets for teens who want to feel a bit of a buzz without worrying that they’re going to get arrested for the act of buying drugs.
When teens take these prescription painkillers, they trigger a cascading set of chemical reactions that result in a flood of euphoria and warmth. Teens feel good on these drugs. But the brain can adapt and adjust to the power of these pills, meaning that teens might need to take in huge amounts of pills to feel an even moderately powerful high. And each pill can come with a big price tag.
Heroin works in the same way, and on the same receptors, meaning that teens accustomed to prescription painkillers can “upgrade” to heroin to get a bigger punch. And often, heroin looks like a good value to budget-conscious teens. In New York, for example, newspapers report that a bag of heroin can cost between $6 and $7. That means heroin is less expensive than cigarettes or beer. Teens desperate for a big high at a low price might think heroin is a perfect solution.
Inadvertent Heroin Exposure
While some teens make a conscious choice to try heroin, others come to addiction via a very different path. According to sources interviewed for Oprah, some dealers provide heroin to teens who are accustomed to buying prescription painkillers. These teens ask for something like Vicodin, and they’re provided with a bag of powder the dealer says is made from crushed-up pills. In reality, however, the bag contains heroin.
A teen who takes this powder is supplying the brain with a big punch of drugs, and the brain cells react by adjusting their response. If teens who take heroin try to move back to the drugs they were once accustomed to, they’ll find that those drugs seem weak and ineffectual. They simply need heroin, now that they’ve been exposed to it. Teens might have this same experience if they typically take drugs with friends. They might think they’re taking a powdered form of ecstasy, for example, and they might be given a powdered form of heroin. This bait and switch can also lead right to addiction.
Regardless of whether teens are choosing to take heroin or whether they’re simply falling for a trick, experts suggest that the number of teens with legitimate heroin addictions is on the rise. For example, in an article in Salon, an expert in New Jersey recounts his experience of running a teen clinic. In 2009, this man dealt with one teen who had a history of heroin abuse. In 2012, he had 22 such teens.
Numbers like this are rising all across the country, and they demonstrate just how serious the heroin abuse issue is becoming among young people. Teens are trying this drug for various reasons, and when they do so, they find that it’s very difficult to stop using it.
That inability to stop is due, in part, to the speed at which the drug enters brain tissues, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Heroin seems designed to pop right into the cells of the brain, causing changes that are profound and immediate. Brain cells are hardwired to remember big changes like that. When they appear, the brain calls out for those changes again in response to things like:
- Extreme happiness
All of those changes happen deep down in a teen’s brain, far below the level of consciousness, so a teen might not be aware that it’s happening. All that a teen might know is that a sudden need for drugs is rising, and the teen seems helpless to ignore that call. That’s when an addiction has set in, and it’s a speedy process with heroin, simply because the drug is so very powerful.
Signs and Symptoms
Some teens who abuse heroin are sloppy, leaving needles, powder, and other drug paraphernalia out in the open for parents to find. The drug reduces their inhibitions and their ability to plan, so it’s harder for teens to hide the acts they’re completing every day.
There are many teens who are very adept at hiding their drug use from the people who love them and who want to help them. These teens might never do anything obvious that points to drug use. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, they might have symptoms of use that are easy for parents to spot. Those physical symptoms include:
- Slowed thinking
- Slowed breathing
- Constricted pupils
High teens seem as though they’re wrapped up in cotton. They can’t think quickly, talk clearly, or move with speed. They might nod off periodically, and they might be difficult to rouse and awaken.
Between hits of heroin, users might go through small cycles of withdrawal, so they may experience flu-like symptoms, such as abdominal discomfort and sweating. These teens might also be anxious and nervous, and they might want to get away from the family as quickly as possible, so they can get the drugs they want to take.
What to Do
Any or all of these signs should prompt parents to ask questions of their teens. A simple discussion about the signs the family has seen, and the worries the family has, might prompt a teen to open up and reveal the drug use that’s been hiding inside. Some teens are just desperate for someone to speak up about the problem, so they can get the help they know they need. Families that break the silence could be doing teens like this a great favor.
But some teens are deep in denial about their addictions. They may claim that they can stop at anytime, or that they’re not sure they even want to stop taking drugs in the first place. For teens like this, discussions about addictions to heroin can often turn into fights, and those disagreements help no one. Teens like this are best approached with the help of a professional interventionist, who can craft a conversation that motivates the teen to get better.
No matter what route the family takes in order to get the teen help, there should be no cold-turkey withdrawal on the table. Teens addicted to heroin need medical help in order to get through withdrawal without feeling ill or mentally desperate. Asking them to give up that help could force them to relapse right back to drug use.
If your need needs help with a heroin problem, we can provide the medical supervision the child needs to get sober. The programs we offer can help teens to build on that sobriety, so they can stay clean for good. At Next Generation Village, we focus exclusively on teens, and we’d like to help your family. Please call the number at the top of the page, and we’ll tell you more.
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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.