8th October 2017

Teens in danger as opioid use creates heroin addiction risk

The increased recreational use of prescription opioids by school children may be providing a gateway to later-life heroin addiction, according to research.

Researchers revealed that teens who have experimented with nonmedical opioid use are significantly more likely to use heroin and put themselves at risk of developing dangerous addictions.

Their study was carried out to look at the drug-taking behavior of American high school seniors over a four-year period — particularly the nonmedical misuse of prescription painkillers. It was prompted by concerns that more people who take prescription drugs recreationally are transitioning to heroin because it’s often cheaper and easier to acquire.

Lead author Joseph Palamar, Ph.D., an associate professor at New York University, said a serious concern raised by the study was that many of the young participants did not know that the drugs they had been misusing were opioids.

“It appears that we have plenty of teens popping these pills without even knowing they’re opioids,” Palamar said. “It’s alarming when teens use pills non medically without knowing what they are because these pills can lead to dependence. We’re constantly referring to opioids in the media now, for example, but the term is rarely defined as painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin.”

Palamar said the number of youngsters misusing opioids is probably underreported because not enough teens know what they are. This means they often do not understand the serious effects that the drugs they’re experimenting with can have.

He has called for drug information provided to teens to be clearer in order to better educate those most at risk — particularly given his study’s findings.

Palamar and his team examined a nationally representative sample of 12th-grade high school seniors, picking classes from different schools and different states at random.

They asked each subject whether or not they had taken opioids outside of a doctor’s instruction, and asked the teens about their lifetime heroin usage.

While heroin use was relatively rare — reported by 1.2 percent of surveyed students — a significant correlation was shown between using heroin and prescription drugs.

Researchers found that the odds of taking heroin skyrocketed when a teen had experimented prescription drugs. Of those who had taken heroin in their lifetime, more than 77 percent had also taken opioids recreationally.

The data also showed that the chances of heroin use increased substantially when opioid consumption was more frequent or very recent and those most at risk of making the transition from prescription drugs to heroin were white males.

Researchers hope that their findings will mean the right people are targeted when it comes to cutting down on gateway drug use.

“Future interventions should be aimed at decreasing nonmedical opioid use among adolescents and young adults before initiation of heroin use, with special attention given to individuals who use opioids more frequently,” they said. “Targeting this group may prevent future heroin initiation, and decrease the troubling trend in opiate-related deaths.”

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