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Link Between Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Heroin syringe next to a prescription bottle and pile of opioid pills  

Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid that is derived from morphine. Heroin is highly addictive due to its rapid absorption by the body and it has no medical use. In contrast, other opioids such as morphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone are effective in the treatment of severe pain. However, even these prescription opioids have a high abuse potential and should only be used in adolescents when other medications fail to provide adequate pain relief. Misuse of prescription opioids by teenagers may lead to dependence and addiction. Such abuse of prescription opioids is associated with an increased risk of heroin use.

Why Teens Use Opioids

Prescription opioids, such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, and hydromorphone, may be used for treating severe pain in adults as well as adolescents. These medications may be used in adolescents for the treatment of severe pain due to sports injuries, surgery or dental work. They can be safe and effective when used as prescribed. However, prescription opioids should only be used sparingly and for a short duration due to their highly addictive nature.

Teens may be prescribed opioid medications for the treatment of severe pain and may become dependent on these drugs when taken over a prolonged duration. They may start taking larger doses of prescription opioids or using them more frequently than prescribed, leading to the misuse of these medications. Misuse of prescription opioids may also involve the use of opioids prescribed to a friend or relative. Teenagers may use prescription opioids for recreational purposes due to the euphoric and relaxing effects of these drugs.

Adolescence is associated with various educational, emotional and social challenges, as well as exposure to friends who may use drugs. During this vulnerable period, teenagers may use opioids to cope with anxiety and depression or due to peer pressure. The misuse or abuse of prescription opioids is more common among teenagers than heroin use.

According to the 2018 Monitoring the Future survey, 3.4% of 12th graders were misusing prescription opioids, whereas 0.4% of 12th graders used heroin. The higher rate of prescription opioid abuse may be due to the perception that these drugs are safer and have a low risk of addiction. Prescription opioids are sometimes easier to access as well since they are found in many homes.

Why Teens Switch from Prescription Opioid Use to Heroin Use

Research suggests that individuals who abuse prescription opioids may switch to heroin later in life. This connection is because both heroin and prescription opioids have similar euphoric effects when taken through the same route. Initially, prescription opioids may be easier to obtain in limited quantities from friends, family or by means of personal prescriptions. However, the availability of prescription opioids has become tightly regulated, whereas the availability of heroin has increased. Heroin is thus becoming easier to obtain and is much cheaper than prescription opioids. Heroin is rapidly absorbed and reaches the brain within 15 to 30 seconds, producing a more rapid euphoric high compared to other opioids.

Dangers of Using Heroin and Prescription Drugs

Although the highly addictive properties of heroin have been known for some time, it has taken a while to recognize the addictive properties of prescription opioids. Even the use of prescription opioids as directed by a physician for a few weeks can lead to physical dependence on the medication. This involves the need to use the drug to function normally and the manifestation of withdrawal symptoms upon abstinence from drug use. However, dependence is distinct from addiction, and individuals who are dependent, but not addicted, are able to live normal healthy lives once the withdrawal symptoms are appropriately managed with the help of a doctor. In contrast, addiction involves the compulsive use of opioids despite negative consequences on an individual’s social life or their physical and mental health.

Prescription opioids must only be used sparingly and the misuse of prescription opioids, like heroin use, can lead to addiction. Besides addiction, heroin use and misuse of prescription opioids can also result in a fatal overdose. High doses of opioids can lead to slowed breathing or respiratory depression. Respiratory depression can lead to decreased oxygen supply to vital organs, including the brain. Respiratory depression caused by an opioid overdose can lead to brain damage, coma, and death. The death rate due to heroin overdose was 1 per 100,000 deaths in 2015 in adolescents between 15 and 19 years old, whereas the death rate due to other opioids was 0.6 per 100,000 between 2014 and 2015 in the same age group.

Signs of Teen Heroin Abuse

The use of heroin among teenagers can be recognized by the presence of drug paraphernalia and physical and behavioral changes. Some of the signs of heroin use and addiction may include:

  • Constriction of pupils
  • Dryness of mouth
  • Presence of drug paraphernalia like needles, spoons or pipes
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Impulsiveness
  • Constipation
  • Excessive sleepiness or a sudden urge to sleep
  • Frequently borrowing money without providing a good reason

Medical advice must be immediately sought if you have a child who is addicted to opioids. Overcoming addiction to opioids can be very difficult and treatment at a rehab specialized for adolescents must be sought.

If your child is addicted to prescription opioids or heroin, the Next Generation Village can help. The staff at Next Generation Village consists of accredited and experienced doctors, nurses and mental health professionals who specialize in the treatment of substance use disorders in teens. Contact Next Generation Village to learn more about the treatment options available for your child.

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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