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Teen Opioid Abuse

Opioid pills spilling out of a prescription bottle onto a blue counter  

Without prescription pain medication, life would be uncomfortable or even intolerable for many people.

When pain relievers, or analgesics, are taken under a doctor’s supervision, these drugs can provide relief from the discomfort of illness or injury. But many of the most effective analgesics on the market are opioid narcotics, which can be very addictive. Opioids, a family of drugs based on the compounds found in the opium poppy, help to reduce sensations of pain, but when taken for recreational reasons, these powerful medications can generate feelings of pleasure, deep relaxation, or euphoria.

Opioids act directly on the central nervous system, slowing down the vital functions of the brain and body. Recreational use of these potent medications can lead to respiratory depression, low blood pressure, unconsciousness, and death. Because of their high potential for abuse and addiction, several of the most commonly prescribed opioids in the country are classified as Schedule II or Schedule II controlled substances by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Using these drugs for nonmedical reasons is illegal, yet according to the NSDUH Report, 4.5 million Americans aged 12 and older — including many teenagers — abused prescription pain relievers in 2013.

Why Are Analgesics Prescribed?

The term “analgesic” is used to describe drugs that relieve pain, including over-the-counter medications and prescription drugs. If you have a headache or a minor injury, you might buy an analgesic like ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to relieve the discomfort. For a more serious illness or injury, a doctor might prescribe a stronger analgesic, such as oxycodone (found in drugs like Percocet and OxyContin) or hydrocodone (found in medications like Vicodin or Norco).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that in 2012, opioid pain medications were prescribed nearly 260 million times in the US. The widespread use of prescription opioids means that these medications are more available to recreational users as well as patients with a legitimate need for pain control. In fact, many teenagers who take pain medications for nonmedical purposes obtain the drugs from parents, friends, or classmates.

What Are the Most Common Analgesics?

The majority of today’s popular analgesics belong to the opioid family. Some of these drugs, like morphine and codeine, are naturally occurring compounds, while others, like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and hydromorphone, are synthesized in laboratories. Heroin, which is now classified as a Schedule I substance, is a semi-synthetic opioid that was originally developed to serve as a less addictive alternative to morphine.

In the 21st century, there are dozens of opiate analgesics available. Some of the most popular drugs prescribed for the treatment or prevention of pain include:

  • Oxycodone: This drug is sold under the trade name OxyContin and Roxicodone, and it is an ingredient in other medications like Percocet, Percodan, or Tylox. Oxycodone is effective at relieving moderate to severe pain, but it is also one of the most commonly abused analgesics. The Office of Diversion Control of the United States DEA reports that approximately 16 million Americans have admitted to abusing oxycodone at least once in their lives.
  • Fentanyl: This opioid drug is often prescribed in the form of a transdermal patch (Duragesic), which delivers pain medication continuously through the skin. Fentanyl is also sold in the form of lozenges or lollipops (Actiq).
  • Hydrocodone: Synthesized from codeine, this semi-synthetic opioid is used in popular combination analgesics like Norco, Vicodin, and Lortab, which contain both hydrocodone and acetaminophen, or Tylenol. Hydrocodone is also combined with cough suppressants and expectorants to relieve coughing and congestion.
  • Hydromorphone: Sold under the trade names Dilaudid and Exalgo, hydromorphone is a powerful synthetic opioid that is prescribed for people who need continuous pain control.
  • Morphine: Morphine is a natural opioid that can effectively relieve moderate to severe pain. Common trade names include Astramorph, Avinza, MS Contin, Kadian, Kadian ER, and Roxanol.

There are many other prescription analgesics on the market, and the pharmaceutical industry is constantly working to develop pain medications that are both effective and non-addictive. To date, however, the medical community continues to rely heavily on opioids when prescribing medication to control moderate to severe pain.

How Are Prescription Painkillers Abused?

Opiate abuse has become a serious problem in the US, with prescription medications like oxycodone and hydrocodone, challenging street drugs, like heroin and cocaine, as the most popular drugs of abuse. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reveal disturbing trends in the use and abuse of these drugs:

  • The number of prescriptions written for opioid pain medications increased by 200 percent between 1991 and 2011.
  • Around 70 percent of Americans who admitted to using a prescription analgesic for nonmedical purposes stated that they were given the drug at no cost by friends or family members.
  • In 2010, over 16,600 deaths in the US were attributed to prescription opioids — more fatalities than any other legal or illegal drug.
  • Six times as many people sought treatment for opioid abuse in 2010 as in 1999.

Prescription analgesics can be abused by taking more than the prescribed dose of the drug, by taking drugs that were prescribed for another individual, or by combining opioid analgesics with other substances of abuse. These medications can also be abused by taking them in unsafe ways. For example, extended-release oxycodone tablets can be crushed into a powder and snorted or diluted for injection in order to intensify their euphoric effects. However, taking a powerful narcotic opioid in this manner can quickly cause an overdose and lead to death.

What Are the Risks of Opioid Abuse?

Analgesic abuse among teenagers poses risks to the user’s health, personal relationships, legal status, and future goals. Taking prescription analgesics without a doctor’s order is illegal, even if the user is having pain. Consistent abuse of these drugs can lead to physical and psychological dependence and eventually to addiction.

As the brain grows accustomed to the effects of opioids, the user will need higher doses to achieve the same level of euphoria. This phenomenon, known as tolerance, can lead to dependence, or the need to take opioids in order to feel normal. Many users move from dependence to addiction, or the compulsive need to seek and abuse a drug in spite of its harmful consequences. According to the International Journal on Drug Policy, prescription opioid abuse often leads to the use of harder opiates. The high cost of prescription drugs, combined with a recent glut of heroin on the international market, has led many young users to make the leap from prescription opioids to injectable forms of heroin.

Along with dependence and addiction, opioid analgesics pose a high risk of overdose. These central nervous system depressants can slow down the heart rate and breathing to dangerous levels, especially when they are taken with other depressants, such as alcohol or tranquilizers. In spite of the harmful effects of analgesic abuse, quitting can be extremely difficult. As the body withdraws from the effects of opioids, the user may experience side effects such as:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headaches
  • Cold sweats
  • Diarrhea
  • Tremors
  • Muscle and bone pain
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Strong cravings for the drug

The discomfort of opioid withdrawal makes it very challenging to quit taking these drugs without medical supervision and support. In fact, the experience is so unpleasant that most users who attempt to quit on their own will relapse and return to opioid abuse, even though they are aware of the way the drug is affecting their bodies.

How Can Teens Recover From Opioid Addiction?

Before the therapeutic work of rehab can begin, teens who are abusing opioids need a period of detox to clear their bodies of the drugs. Medically assisted detox programs make it easier to cope with the uncomfortable side effects of withdrawal and the cravings that accompany them. Medications like buprenorphine (Suboxone) or naltrexone (ReVia, Vivitrol) are available that can ease the transition from addiction to a drug-free life. During the detox phase, clients are monitored by clinical professionals to ensure that they remain safe and comfortable.

One of the primary goals of detox is to motivate the patient to move forward into the next phase of recovery. In rehab, teenagers acquire the tools they need to build a stronger foundation for the future: tools like stress reduction, interpersonal communication, boundary setting, and emotional regulation. Through one-on-one therapy, peer support groups, family counseling, and recreational therapy, teenagers develop self-confidence and a stronger sense of competence. Tutoring and other educational services should be available to help teens stay on track with their future academic goals.

Next Generation Village offers recovery services for adolescent clients who are struggling with opioid addiction. Prescription drug abuse is one of the most pressing concerns facing substance abuse treatment professionals today. At Next Generation Village, professionals address this growing problem with innovative, client-centered programs that empower and aid clients in their journey to recovery. Admissions coordinators are available at any time to provide information about individualized treatment plans and to help you or a teen in your life get the help you need to start the recovery process. Call us today to learn more information about how we can help your teen find recovery.

Related Articles About Teen Opioid Use

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Link Between Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Dangers of Mixing Opioids and Alcohol

Does Teen Opioid Use Lead to Heroin Use?

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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