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Teen Opiate Addiction

Reading Time: 6 minutes

An opiate begins with a tiny poppy seed.

That seed is crushed and turned into opium, and the opium is transformed into an opiate substance. Heroin is an opiate. Not all opiates are illegal substances. Morphine and codeine are also opiates. Doctors commonly prescribe these medications to patients experiencing high levels of pain.

Opiate Addiction

First of all, opiate is considered a natural substance, since it begins as a plant. Some teens mistakenly believe that these drugs are “safe” as a result. Some teens might avoid methamphetamine or other man-made drugs. They might gravitate to opiates because they seem organic and somehow less dangerous. In addition, teens may find the doctors’ prescriptions to be a sort of seal of approval. Therefore certifying that the drugs are safe for all to use.

As a result, teens may experiment with opiates either alone or with friends. Some teens may be able to handle these experimentations without suffering side effects. But other teens may develop an addiction to the medication. Teens who are prescribed painkiller medications may be at particular risk for addiction. They’re exposing their bodies to the drugs for long periods of time. There was a presentation at the American Society of Addiction Medicine 42nd Annual Medical Scientific Conference. Of note, 67 percent of teen admitted for painkiller addiction received prescriptions for the drugs in the previous year. Consequently, the problem is growing.

How They Work

Knowing how the drugs work is key to understanding teen opiate addiction. In fact, the drugs are designed to become addictive, and using them for even a short period of time can be incredibly dangerous.

When a person ingests, injects or smokes an opiate, that drug seeks out opiate receptors in the body. The receptors are in the spinal cord, brain, and gastrointestinal tract. Opiates decrease the sensation of pain. People with pain due to surgeries, cancer, or chronic condition may feel significant pain relief from opiates. In addition, opiates can cause:

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Constipation
  • Euphoria, which commonly drives teens to use the drugs

Over time, the opiate receptors begin to become less sensitive and the user must take higher doses of the drug to achieve the same effect. It’s this aspect of opiates that is dangerous. Teens may experiment with higher doses of the drug to experience a high. the teen runs a greater and greater risk of overdose. Opiates tend to slow breathing, meaning that teens who take high doses of opiates may stop breathing altogether. Symptoms of an opiate overdose are a medical emergency. Hence, parents must call 911 right away when they notice:

  • Slow or troubled breathing
  • Cold and clammy skin
  • Confusion
  • Convulsions

There are medications doctors can use to treat overdose symptoms. Teens who emerge from these episodes head directly into treatment programs for addiction. It’s important to remember that teens can overdose the very first time they use an opiate. Therefore, this is an incredibly dangerous substance.

Heroin Addiction

Teens may start their addiction path by taking prescription pain medications. But they may switch to heroin when their tolerance to prescription medication becomes too high. Switching to heroin can have disastrous effects for the teen. Heroin purities can vary widely, so the teen may never quite know how much of the drug he or she is truly taking. A report from the U.S. Department of Justice states that heroin purity can range from 47 to 57 percent, depending on where the heroin is produced. In addition, the report states that heroin prices have been dropping across the United States. This makes the drug less expensive than prescription medications. This trend could be driving teens to use heroin in larger numbers, as the drug is plentiful, cheap, and easy to obtain.

Heroin is illegal. Teens caught using the drug could face significant problems. Regarding of whether they are caught or not, teens may face severe medical problems from heroin use including:

  • Collapsed veins
  • Liver disease
  • Pneumonia
  • Cellulitis
  • Blood-borne diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C

Ideally, the teen will receive addiction counseling and medications before severe side effects. Treatments do work, but the teen must access the treatments.

Getting Involved

Drugs change the way the teen’s body functions on a molecular level. In addition, the teen is likely unable to stop taking the drugs without facing severe and unpleasant consequences.

Reading up on opiate addiction can be scary for many parents. They may choose to take a hard-line approach with their teens and force them to immediately stop using drugs altogether. While this tough-love approach is certainly understandable, it is often not the best way to deal with an opiate addiction. Withdrawal symptoms such as severe depression, diarrhea, and cravings, may cause the teen so much distress. Users are driven to use again, just to make the symptoms stop. In addition, these withdrawal symptoms tend to be distracting and distressing. This leads the teen to think only about the addiction. Teens must have a clear head and open mind. To work through the causes of their addiction takes dedication. It is key to find healthy coping skills.

In most cases, teens need medical assistance in order to combat an opiate addiction.

This often means that the teen is given medication to stop withdrawal symptoms. While it might seem counterintuitive to give a teen drugs to help stop a drug addiction, this sort of therapy has success. A study by Associated Behavioral Health said teens who received medications and counseling benefit. They were more likely to engage in the healing process. In other words, the medications allowed the teens to participate. Therefore they stayed in the treatment programs for a longer period of time. Experts often say that the longer the addict stays in treatment, the more effective that treatment will be. Medications can help make that happen.

If your teen is struggling with opiate addiction, call us today and find out more about how we can help.

At Newport Academy, we offer teen treatment programs that can help. We’ve tailored our programs to give teens the best chance at success. We know that many teens abuse drugs because they’re medicating their own mental health issues. We offer treatments that can assist with both mental health and addiction. Each program is tweaked to deal with the needs of that addict.

Spotting Addiction

Just because your teen doesn’t have an opiate addiction now doesn’t mean your teen won’t develop an addiction later. It’s a fact that many teens will experiment with drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 percent of teens took prescription meds in 2009 with no prescription. Two percent of teens took heroin. Kids are experimenting and parents need to be aware.

Parents who know the signs of addiction can help ensure that their teens get the help they need as soon as the problem develops. Signs of opiate use include:

  • Slurred or slow speech
  • Tiny pupils
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Flushing of the face or neck
  • Slow gait
  • Extreme drowsiness

If you’ve noticed these symptoms in your teen, it’s important to have a frank and honest discussion about drug use. These discussions can be difficult to begin, but they are incredibly important for the teen’s overall health. In this talk, parents should strive to be specific, pointing out the signs of drug use that they have noticed. They must explain why these symptoms are cause for concern. In addition, parents should remind the teen that addiction is curable, and that the parents are willing to help the teen get better. It’s best if these interventions happen right before the teen enters a treatment program. At Newport Academy, we can provide you with some ideas about topics to cover in this discussion.

Furthermore, parents should remember that teens often begin taking opiates they find at home. If you’ve recently taken an opiate medication to control your own pain be sure they’re hidden. In some communities, you can take unused drugs back to the pharmacy for safe disposal. Other communities provide medication drop boxes at police departments. As a last resort, keep the drugs in a locked cabinet in your home and keep the key with you at all times. This is a prudent step to take whether or not your teen is potentially using substances or not. In conclusion you must protect your family from substsances.

Teen Opiate Abuse and Addiction Statistics

Misusing prescribed opiates has become more common in recent years among teens.

The numbers show that more teens abuse prescription painkillers than the street opiate, heroin. Prescription drugs tend to be more available than illicit drugs. 40 percent of teens report that they could easily obtain prescription opiates, and only 14 percent say the same about heroin. The differences in availability may explain the differences in usage.

Studies show that four out of 10 teens see prescription drugs as less dangerous than heroin, which may also explain the differences. In 2010, about eight percent of 12th graders reported using Vicodin in the past year, compared to less than one percent for heroin.


Heroin addicts have a habit that, on average, costs them between $150 and $200 a day. Those addicted to prescription opiates may have higher or lower costs. This depends on the source (whether or not they get it from a doctor and use health insurance, buy them from friends or take them from family members). Those who become dependent upon opiates may resort to theft or violence because they can’t afford their drugs.

In addition, many addicts report that they start abusing prescription painkillers in the teen years. Then they switched to heroin because it provided much of the same effects at a lower cost.


In 1999, heroin and morphine, both opiates, accounted for more than half of drug overdose deaths. This is due in part to the change in purity of the drug; historically, heroin purchased on the street was only 10 percent pure. Today, studies show that it is now between 50 percent and 80 percent pure.

Hydrocodone and oxycodone rank in the top 10 as the most common death-related drugs in 19 cities.

Methadone, a synthetic opiate commonly used to treat withdrawal symptoms in opiate addicts, has become a commonly abused drug. Fatalities related to it have risen by 500 percent. Also, there was a 117-percent increase in emergency room admissions for opiate abuse between 1997 and 2001 in the United States.

Teen Treatment

Those who inject opiates report waiting an average of 14 years before seeking treatment. If your teen is addicted to opiates, it is important to seek treatment as soon as possible. The longer an opiate addiction continues, the harder it is to break. We are here to help. Please get support. You don’t have to go through this alone.