Teen Opioid Use: Risk Factors and Prevention


The opioid epidemic is a significant issue throughout the country, with the president even declaring it a public health emergency in 2017. Opioid use affects individuals of all genders, ages, and socio-economic statuses.

Looking strictly at numbers, opioid use is not as prevalent among adolescents compared to adults; however, there are factors that can make adolescents more vulnerable to developing an addiction. Therefore, it’s important to understand the risk factors as well as methods that may help to prevent teen opioid use.

Risk Factors for Opioid Use in Teens

Perhaps the biggest contributing factor to opioid use in teens (and adults) is access. Teens may receive opioid prescriptions for sports injuries, dental procedures, chronic pain, and more.

Access doesn’t just mean prescriptions from a doctor. It can also mean how accessible opioids are at home and other areas of their lives. Are prescriptions easily found, or are they safely stored away? In some instances, prescription drug use can lead to illicit drug use, such as heroin.

A history of mental illness, including mood disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, can increase the risk of developing an opioid use disorder. Any family history can also increase the likelihood of addiction in adolescents.

Social pressure or friend use is also a risk factor among adolescents. Friends who use opioids could potentially normalize illicit behavior.

Warning Signs of Abuse

As a parent, knowing the warning signs of prescription drug use is crucial. Changes in sleeping patterns, mood swings, and poor academic performance are just a few examples. Additionally, adolescents with substance use disorders tend to withdraw from their friend circles and no longer show any interest in hobbies they once enjoyed.

Preventing Opioid Use in Teens

While opioids are not exclusive to prescription medications, the suggestions below will largely pertain to prescription opioids.

Have an Honest Conversation with Your Child

If your teenager sustains an injury or requires a procedure in which opioids may be prescribed, it’s important to have an open and honest conversation about pain management and the risks associated with medications. Even if your child is not in a situation where opioids may be prescribed, it’s still important to have conversations early and often about substance use.

Talk with Your Child’s Doctor

Use the physician as an ally and ask them to also talk about the risks associated with prescription medications with your child. Additionally, the doctor should talk with you and your teen about proper dosage so you both understand how to use the medication(s) as prescribed.

Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask about other pain management options. Although doctors tend to prescribe these drugs for moderate to severe pain, you should see if your teen can benefit from over-the-counter painkillers, especially for acute pain. Tylenol may be all your teen needs to get through the discomfort.

Keep Prescription Medications in Your Hands

As the parent, you may feel more comfortable holding onto the prescription drug(s) yourself. When your teen is in pain, you can administer according to doctor recommendations. Depending on what the medication is for, your child may not need the entire bottle. If so, take any unused prescriptions to a local prescription drop-off center to properly dispose of the materials.

In the event your teenager does develop an opioid use disorder, prompt treatment is paramount. In most states, Medication-Assisted Treatment, an evidence-based treatment approach for opioid use, is not available to individuals under 18. Fortunately, there are many viable treatment options, including detox, inpatient treatment, therapy, and outpatient treatment.

Learn More About Pyramid’s Teen Treatment Programs

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