Opioid abuse has quickly become one of the United States’ primary drug problems, and it has been declared a national public health emergency. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who leads the commission on opioid abuse, told CNN that the widespread abuse is “the medical crisis of our time” and “the AIDS epidemic of our generation, but even worse.”
The range of opioids is important to understand. Heroin falls into that category, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and it has long had a reputation as one of the most dangerous illegal drugs on the street. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is not as widely known as heroin but is even more potent. And opioids including hydrocodone, oxycodone and codeine may not be perceived as having a heroin-like level of danger because they can be prescribed for pain relief.
As the institute states: “Opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by a doctor, but because they produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, they can be misused (taken in a different way or in a larger quantity than prescribed, or taken without a doctor’s prescription). Regular use — even as prescribed by a doctor — can lead to dependence and, when misused, opioid pain relievers can lead to overdose and death.”
Here’s more on dealing with the opioid crisis.
Statistics show the alarming rate at which opioids are being abused, including this one by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Opioids killed more than 42,000 people in 2016. And prescription opioids were involved in 40 percent of overdoses, according the CDC.
More numbers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse:
- “Every day, more than 90 Americans die after overdosing on opioids.”
- “Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them.”
- “Between 8 and 12 percent develop an opioid use disorder.”
- “An estimated 4 to 6 percent who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin.”
- “About 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.”
How addiction starts
It’s important to know how opioids work, so that teenagers and adults can understand what happens and why. Here’s how the National Institute on Drug Abuse describes opioid addiction: “Long-term opioid use changes the way nerve cells work in the brain. This happens even to people who take opioids for a long time to treat pain, as prescribed by their doctor. The nerve cells grow used to having opioids around, so that when they are taken away suddenly, the person can have lots of unpleasant feelings and reactions. These are known as withdrawal symptoms.”
The institute says that these symptoms are akin to having the flu — “aching, fever, sweating, shaking, or chills” — but withdrawal is “much worse.”
“That is why use of opioids should be carefully watched by a doctor — so that a person knows how much to take and when, as well as how to stop taking them to lessen the chances of withdrawal symptoms. Eventually, the cells will work normally again, but that takes time.”
Parents will need to emphasize communication with teenagers when it comes to opioids, just as they will need to do with alcohol, marijuana and other substances. A teenager that hears about the significant dangers of opioids will be better equipped to decline any potential experimentation.
As Michael O. Schroeder writes for U.S. News & World Report, parents should also remember that they are role models for their teenagers. He features Dr. Sheryl Ryan of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Substance Use and Prevention at the Yale School of Medicine: “‘Do their parents drink heavily? Are they smokers? Do they just take pills for the least little thing that bothers them?’ Ryan says. Being moderate about substance use — like having a glass of wine now and again rather than binge-drinking — can give kids a road map when they’re of age.”
And access can have a big impact when it comes to teens and opioids. Schroeder advises keeping any prescription opioids “locked away in a medicine cabinet or another safe place that your kids can’t access.” He also notes to consider how much of a prescription is truly necessary:
“As efforts continue to reduce unnecessary prescribing of opioids by medical and dental providers, experts say, it’s important to be discerning about what you and your kids take. ‘Don’t let your teenager who’s getting his wisdom teeth out get four weeks’ worth of Vicodin or Oxycontin,’ Ryan says. “All they need is maybe two to three days.”
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