Opioid abuse and addiction are big problems in the United States. The director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the federal government agency that studies drug abuse, describes opioid abuse as “a public health epidemic with devastating consequences.”
Although adult opioid abuse is a bigger problem than teen use, studies show that teens also abuse these drugs. In fact, misusing legal opioids or using illegal opioids can lead to serious problems for teens.
Legal opioids, which include oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and codeine, are medicines prescribed by doctors typically to treat pain. For example, a person might be given a prescription after surgery or for a sports injury. Heroin is also an opioid, but because it is illegal, doctors don’t prescribe it.
Legal opioids are powerful medications. They should be available only through a doctor’s prescription, and doctors should be very careful about how they prescribe these medications. But overprescribing, prescription drug theft, and people misusing or selling their prescribed medications mean these drugs are often available on the street.
Opioids are chemically similar to endorphins, chemicals that the body produces naturally and give you the rush you sometimes feel with exercise, stress, or certain foods. Opioids can make people feel very happy and euphoric. This can make them want to use these drugs to get high.
One of the reasons for the opioid epidemic is that opioids can be very addictive. Using legal opioids in non-prescribed ways is more likely to cause drug dependence and addiction. Examples of misusing legal opioids include taking someone else’s medication even if you are in pain, taking medications in ways not prescribed (including more often than you’re supposed to), or taking these medications to get high.
Heroin is highly addictive. Because it is illegal and not regulated like legal opioids, it is sometimes mixed with other substances that can be harmful. Also, because heroin is illegal, using it in any way can cause serious legal problems.
Abusing or becoming addicted to opioids can lead to poor choices that harm people in school, work, and their personal relationships. People who are addicted to these drugs can have serious withdrawal symptoms and feel physically sick when they try to stop. Sadly, opioid abuse can lead to overdose and death. In 2015, more than 33,000 people died from an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If a teen you know is abusing opioids, he or she should ask an adult they trust for help. That could be a parent or caregiver, another family member, a doctor, or a teacher. If the situation is urgent, they can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. The lifeline helps people in different kinds of crises, not just suicide. It is also free and confidential.
If a teen or a friend needs treatment, they can contact the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator at 1-800-662-HELP.
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