Anyone who is familiar with opioids knows that the country is still suffering from a widespread number of overdoses from prescription pain medication and its close cousin, heroin. Teens and young adults, especially in New England and the Midwest parts of the country, have been particularly hit hard by opioid addictions. However, two recent studies show that there has been a decline in teen opioid use, including intentional misuse, accidental poisoning, and prescribed use of these drugs. The overall decline is a good sign of improvement, but researchers say that there’s still a lot more to be cautious about.
Opiates vs. Opioids
It’s important to first make clear that there’s a difference between opiates and opioids – both can be dangerous. Opiates are naturally extracted from plants while opioids are synthetic drugs. One is naturally made and the other is a man-made drug. Opiates are extracted from the seedpod of the Asian poppy plan. When it was first discovered, it was used in many ways, including a pain reliever, mood enhancer, and even as a way to soothe a colicky infant. As a pain reliever, opiates include the following:
Many years after the discovery of opiates, researchers discovered they could make a synthetic version. Opioids have a similar effect on a person’s body compared to opiates because the two closely resemble one another in makeup. Types of opioids include:
- Percocet, Percodan, OxyContin (oxycodone)
- Vicodin, Lorcet, Lortab (hydrocodone)
- Demerol (pethidine)
- Dilaudid (hydromorphone)
- Duragesic (fentanyl)
Both opiates and opioids can be injected, inhaled, or smoked. Sadly, if a teen becomes addicted to painkillers, it can be easy for them to turn to heroin as a way to get a fix. Heroin is a cheaper (and sometimes stronger) way to satisfy an addiction.
Two 2017 Studies on Teen Opioid Use
Opioids and opiates are used extensively by teens and young adults. Since 1999, the country has seen a dramatic rise in the abuse of prescription pain pills, as well as heroin. Teens are often a vulnerable population since they can sometimes be less educated about certain drugs, are influenced by peer pressure, and can often see drug use as a glorified activity. The American Society of Addiction Medicine reported in 2016 that many teens got their prescription pain pills for free from friends or relatives. Teens continue to be a vulnerable population when it comes to opioid addiction.
However, two studies indicate that it’s getting better for adolescents. Both studies were published in the journal Pediatrics and were funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here are descriptions of these two studies:
Prescription Opioid Exposure – This study analyzed data from the National Poison Data System. It reviewed the 188,468 prescription opioid exposures reported for teens under 20 years old between 2000 and 2015. What researchers found is that most of the exposures happened at home and were most common among children under 5 years old (60% of the time). Teens made up 30% of the exposures. However, the research also found that there was a 31% drop for teens between 2009 and 2015. Despite these positive numbers, this study also found that teens were more likely to end up in the hospital or with a serious medical problem as a result of their opioid use.
Trends in Teen Opioid Use – This study explored opioid use among older teens between 1976 and 2015. By doing such a long-term study, researchers were able to identify trends in opioid use among high school students. The survey asked seniors in high school whether a doctor had ever prescribed them opioids and how many times they had taken prescription opioids without a doctor’s instruction. Roughly 25% of the participants responded that they had used opioids at least once. The use of prescription pain medication rose and fell over the study’s time period (ranging from 16.5% to 24%), but legitimate medical use remained slightly higher throughout compared to non-medical use (recreational use or use of opioids without a doctor’s guidance).
Together, these two studies indicated that there has been a recent decline in teen opioid use. It’s possible that families are becoming more educated about their prescription pain pills, throwing them away when finished with them versus leaving them in the medicine cabinet. As mentioned above, family members are often an easy way for teens to access prescription pain pills. Also, doctors and family members may be getting better at monitoring adolescents when they have been prescribed pain medication.
Despite the slight decline, there is still more to do to help bring teen opioid use down even more. The researchers of the above study suggested the following:
- Screen teens for mental health conditions and drug use
- Prescribe opioids with caution and with extensive monitoring
- Provide education on the risks, benefits, and proper storage of opioids when prescribed to both teens and adults
- Provide education on the dangers of taking drugs outside of a doctor’s direction
- Inform teens of the dangers of opioid use and its tendency to lead to heroin use
- Educate families on addiction and why opioids have a high risk of addiction
- Provide teens and their families with local and national resources for accessing help when needed
- Educate physicians on the dangers of over-prescribing to teens and adults
- Provide families with alternative methods of managing pain (massage, acupuncture, etc.)
There is still a significant problem for teens, youth, and adults when it comes to prescription pain medication. However, if each family is willing to educate themselves on the risks of this type of medication as well as safer ways to manage their pain, slowly the epidemic of opioid abuse and addiction might see a larger decline. Also, if you are a parent or caregiver of a teen on prescription pain medication, especially if you suspect abuse, contact your doctor as well as a mental health professional.