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Opioid Prescriptions and Addiction in Teens

Opioid Prescriptions and Addiction in Teens

For the first time, opioid-producing pharmaceutical companies are being held accountable by state and federal courts for their role in the opioid addiction and overdose epidemic. Opioid prescriptions and addiction have gripped the United States for decades.

Purdue Pharma paid a $270 million settlement with the state of Oklahoma in March of 2019. Although such a large sum was awarded, this may be just the tip of the iceberg. Purdue is also facing repercussions in five more states[1]. Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical have also come under fire for misleading doctors and patients about the safety of their painkillers.

While big pharma is staring at lawsuits and public scrutiny, little has changed with the availability of prescription opioids both legally and through illicit means. Perhaps most affected by the prevalence of these highly addictive medications are teenagers and young adults.

An Increased Risk for Addiction in Teenagers

Despite most people understanding or being aware of the dangers of opioid pain medication, teens and young adults are still prescribed opioids at alarming rates. So much so that theirs is the demographic affected most[2] by the opioid crisis.

Adolescents and college students are particularly prone to misusing prescription drugs in part because their brains are still developing. Other factors include:

  • Party atmosphere
  • Stress and Anxiety
  • Overwhelming course load
  • The pressure to succeed or fit in
  • Using ”study” drugs like Ritalin
  • Work and internship requirements
  • Taking opioids to manage other drug use

According to a study[3] released in May of 2019, 15% of teens and young adults age 18-25 were prescribed opioid pain medication during an emergency room visit from 2005-2015.

Doctors in the emergency settings are prescribing strong opiates like hydrocodone and oxycodone for minor injuries, dental issues, and even sore throats, the study found. Effectively, this has resulted in the legal use of strong medications becoming gateways to teenage opioid addiction.

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opioid prescriptions and addiction in teens

The Short Jump to Addiction

As addiction specialist Dr. Deanna Wilson[4] told NBC News, the “vast majority” of this age group using illicit opiates like heroin and fentanyl get started on prescribed opioids. Because prescription drugs appear to be considered safe in the eyes of young adults, those with early addictive symptoms seek out prescription medications from friends or family.

The problem is that opioids are so highly addictive on a biochemical level that patients become hooked in the time it takes for that emergency prescription to run out, and they’re left feeling opioid withdrawal symptoms, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Fever and chills
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Nausea and stomach cramps

It is at this point many young adults turn to pain management clinics or purchasing pills on the black market (often as simple as asking around campus). Eventually, however, the supply of prescription medications runs out or becomes too difficult, time-consuming, or expensive to obtain.

When prescription medications run dry or become too expensive, teens and young adults often turn away from pharmaceuticals altogether and begin using heroin. Heroin is extremely addictive and as a street drug, substance abusers rarely know what other chemicals their bodies may be taking in.

A Long Road to Recovery

NBC spoke to several other experts in the field of teen and adolescent addiction, one of whom said the problem is a lack of education among patients and medical professionals. Future public health initiatives, he said, should focus on reducing opioid prescriptions in emergency rooms and educating doctors and the public about alternatives.

Greater education is never a bad thing, but as the lawsuits currently making their way through American courts clearly show, corporate greed is also a major player. As long as doctors and pharmaceutical companies are making money off of their addictive products, kids will be at risk.

Both processes – education and litigation – could be years in coming. Dr. Deanne Wilson[4], professor at the University of Pittsburgh, may have summed up why teenagers and young adults are so susceptible to opioid addiction. Dr. Wilson asks to think of an automobile with a gas pedal, but with brakes that are not fully developed.

Seeking Help for Opioid Prescription Addiction

As educators race to train our medical personnel and legal experts seek to tighten restrictions on paid prescriptions, families must take it into their own hands to arm themselves with the right tools and resources. It is important for them to understand the signs of substance abuse to minimize their own and their loved ones’ exposure to these medications – before a visit to a local emergency room or outpatient clinic. If you or someone you love is struggling with opioid prescriptions and addiction, visit your local medical facility or contact Desert Cove Recovery today. Help is always just a phone call away.  


[1] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/five-more-states-sue-oxycontin-maker-purdue-pharma-opioid-epidemic-n1006391

[2] https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/infographics/abuse-prescription-rx-drugs-affects-young-adults-most

[3] https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/143/6/e20181578..info

[4] https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/teens-still-commonly-prescribed-opioids-study-finds-n1009786