The Ultimate Rundown on Opioid Addiction in Teens

March 12, 2021

Across the United States, the opioid epidemic continues to touch the lives of teens and adults. Whether a friend or family member, it is (likely) safe to say that almost everyone has been impacted in some form by an addiction to opioids. Adults and teens alike have watched as a friend, loved one, or next-door neighbor has struggled with or even lost their lives to opioid addiction. The impacts of opioid use and the greater opioid epidemic are not restricted to any specific demographic. Many prominent figures teens look to as inspiration has battled opioid addiction. Some have won the war after seeking comprehensive addiction treatment at a treatment center like Hillcrest, and others have not been as fortunate. Opioid use and abuse are widespread problems that touch nearly every corner of every community across the nation. When people discuss or read about the opioid epidemic, they do not consider the difficulties teens also face concerning these highly addictive substances.

What Are Opioids?

To better understand how opioids impact the lives of teens today, it is essential to understand more about what opioids are and how they affect the physical and mental health of the user. Opioids are a class of drugs responsible for producing various effects in the brain. When opioids reach the brain, they act on specific opioid receptors to produce pain-blocking effects. When the opioid receptors are blocked, the brain cannot effectively receive signals or send them to other areas of the body. Opioids can either be prescription medications (known as prescription pain killers) or street drugs, including heroin. When used appropriately or as prescribed, these prescription medications can be beneficial for short-term pain management. However, users can also quickly become dependent on the intense feelings of relaxation and “high” opioids cause. Also, many individuals who use opioids longer than prescribed or for purposes other than prescribed will quickly develop a tolerance for the medication resulting in needing to take higher and higher doses to achieve the same desired result.

The most commonly used opioids are prescription medications, including OxyContin and Vicodin, as well as street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic (human manufactured) drug that produces effects up to one hundred times more potent than those of morphine.

Opioid Use and Addiction

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates as many as 128 people die in the United States every day from an opioid overdose. This includes both prescription and illicit substances used by people of all ages. In the United States, prescription opioids are found in millions of households. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note there are more opioid prescriptions reported in some states than there are people living in those states. If one considers this rather staggering information, it is not hard to see how many of the nation’s teens first gain access to these powerful, highly addictive drugs.

Opioids act within the brain to produce short-term feelings of pleasure. They mimic the natural actions of endorphins in the body. In addition to decreasing pain, they also produce a “rush” or “high,” accompanied by reduced stress and improved mood. Naturally occurring endorphins will also produce similar feelings, however, not to the extent opioids can. The effects produced by opioids are short-lived. With continued use, teens (and adults) can and often do develop a tolerance to opioids, eventually needing higher and higher doses to achieve symptom relief or pleasure. Once teens try to stop using, they will often experience withdrawal symptoms, including flu-like symptoms and mental health difficulties such as anxiety and depression.

For many who develop an addiction to opioids, the need to use shifts from pain mitigation to alleviating withdrawal symptoms. Once their prescription runs out, they may start buying drugs from dealers, turn to another opioid (heroin) or begin stealing pills from family and friends. Studies among those who struggle with opioid addiction, including those seeking treatment at a treatment facility like Hillcrest, show approximately eighty percent of new heroin users started using painkillers for non-medicinal purposes before trying heroin for the first time.

How Opioid Addiction Affects Adolescents and Teens

Opioid addiction can affect anyone at any age. One does not need to be an adult to struggle with cravings or the physical and emotional difficulties that can arise from substance use.

Addiction doesn’t care about age. The same symptoms, side effects, and challenges faced by adults are faced by teens as well. During teen and adolescent years, the body and mind undergo significant changes. This ongoing developmental process places considerable focus on the changing and developing reward pathways in the brain. It is also during this time that teens are more at risk for substance-seeking behaviors. As many as one in five young adults report using opioids either without a prescription or not as prescribed. In most cases, they obtain these drugs from family or friends who have a prescription. Opioid abuse is also more common among adolescents and teens who struggle with mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

If you are concerned your teen may be struggling with an addiction to opioids, it is essential to be able to recognize what an opioid addiction looks like in teens. Although addiction looks different for everyone, your teen will likely have a few clear signs if they are taking opioids consistently. Opioid misuse and abuse can lead to nausea, reduced respiratory rate, and sluggish or slow movements. You may also notice your teen seems confused and uncoordinated throughout the day. Another sign of potential opioid addiction is chronic, persistent drowsiness. Your teen’s behavior may also be impacted by opioid addiction. They may become disinterested or increasingly isolated. Conversely, they may become aggressive and hostile, acting out towards friends and family members.

Opioid Withdrawal and Essential Detox

Data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate nearly 50,000 people lost their lives to opioid overdose in 2019, more than twice as many as 2010 (21,089). These numbers show more than 136 people each day die from an opioid-related overdose. It is essential to understand the signs of opioid overdose and the symptoms of opioid withdrawal. This knowledge can better help you get your teen the help they need in case of emergency as well as essential addiction treatment that could be lifesaving.

If your teen I regularly using opioids, they could eventually develop a tolerance to the drug’s effects. In most cases, tolerance eventually leads to physical and psychological dependence.  If your teen is dependent on opioids and tries to reduce or stop using, painful and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms can quickly develop. In the case of prescription opioids and other illicit opioids, these symptoms can be dangerous and even fatal. Some of the most common opioids that lead to withdrawal symptoms include prescriptions such as Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, Codeine, and Morphine and illicit (illegal or human manufactured) drugs like heroin or fentanyl and drugs used to help treat addiction, including Methadone.

Depending on the substance and the severity of your teen’s addiction, withdrawal symptoms can occur in as little as six hours after the last dose. Common withdrawal symptoms seen with most opioids include anxiety, agitation, body aches, difficulty sleeping, sweating, gastric disturbances, nausea, and vomiting. Other, more severe symptoms can include delirium tremens (DTs), irregular respirations, irregular heartbeat, seizures, and coma. It is these more severe and potentially life-threatening symptoms related to opioid withdrawal that make detoxing in a safe environment such as a teen-focused detox and treatment center like Hillcrest a safer alternative to quitting “cold turkey.”

Unfortunately, many who try to stop on their own, without the essential supports found in a medically supervised setting, often succumb to overwhelming withdrawal symptoms and relapse before they achieve sobriety. In a medically supervised environment, trained medical staff and addiction treatment supports are available to guide your teen through the detox process and ensure their safety throughout. While detoxing, their vital signs will be monitored and, depending on their unique situation; medications may be administered to help reduce the severity and intensity of withdrawal symptoms. Detox is not easy, but it is a first and essential step on your teen’s path to recovery.

If you are concerned your teen may be struggling with an addiction to opioids, don’t wait to get them help. The first step to achieving health and long-term sobriety is to provide the support they need to acknowledge their unhealthy and potentially dangerous relationship with opioids. If you are not sure where to begin, reach out to your teen’s primary care provider. They may be able to provide guidance and insight around your teen’s unique treatment needs. If your teen is ready to seek treatment, contact the admissions team at Hillcrest today. Our caring and compassionate staff will work with you and your teen to develop a personalized and individual treatment plan that addresses your teen’s specific addiction treatment needs and goals. When creating our treatment plans, we also carefully consider and address any potential dual diagnosis concerns which may impact your teen’s mental or physical health. Research has proven that comprehensive treatment plans that address the mind, body, and spirit are the most successful. Ongoing opioid addiction can be detrimental to your teen’s physical and emotional health. Once opioid addiction takes hold, it is difficult and often impossible to defeat without comprehensive support and evidence-based treatment supports.  At Hillcrest, we understand it can be difficult to approach your teen with your concerns about potential substance use. Let the team at Hillcrest help you and your family take those first steps towards a future without substance use. We are here to help guide your family through each step of the treatment process.