Why Should I Be Concerned?
Many parents do not realize the extent of prescription opioid misuse (use without a prescription) among youth, and the effects and risks of this non-medical use. In recent years, prescription opioids used non-medially have replaced tobacco as the third most commonly used drug among Ontario teens (at about 14%), behind alcohol and marijuana. Younger students, particularly those in grade 7 and 8, are misusing opioids in far greater numbers than marijuana.
What Should I Be Concerned About?
Many young people mistakenly believe that prescription opioids are safer than street drugs. They think that because opioids are prescribed medicines, using these drugs is not as dangerous as using drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamine. This is a myth. Opioids are powerful medications, and misusing them can be harmful for a variety of reasons:
- Opioids can be addictive. This may include physical dependence, where over time a person's body get used to the drug and develops tolerance to some of its effects. This means that the person needs to take more and more to get the same feelings. As the amount taken increases, so does the risk of overdose.
- Teens who are dependent on opioids may experience withdrawal if they suddenly stop using the drug. The symptoms of withdrawal include intense restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting and cold flashes. The experience of withdrawal can lead to depression and suicidal feelings, resulting in a cycle that can end with suicide or unintentional overdose.
- Time-released products such as MS Contin, designed to deliver pain-relieving medication slowly over several hours, are sometimes crushed and snorted or injected. This was a common problem with OxyContin, which has now been replaced with OxyNEO, which is more difficult to crush. Crushing slow-release products causes the drug to enter the system all at once, sometimes resulting in an overdose. With an overdose, breathing slows down and eventually stops, and death may occur.
- When opioids are combined with alcohol and/or some other prescription or over-the-counter drugs, the risk of overdose increases.
- Opioids can impair decision making and may result in risky decisions that lead to teens being injured or killed due to fighting, having a care crash or attempting suicide.
Isn't Use of Street Drugs More Harmful?
Misuse of prescription opioids can be at least as harmful as using alcohol or street drugs. Also, it is illegal for anyone without a prescription to possess, use or share prescription opioids. If they are found in a student's locker or car, the person can be charged with possession of drugs.
How Do Young People Get Them?
More than two-thirds of students (67%) using opioid painkillers non-medically reported getting the medication from home.
Why Do Young People Misuse Prescription Opioids?
Most teens and adults do not understand the risks involved in misusing prescription drugs. Teens may use opioids non-medically for pleasure or to help them handle stress because:
- they don't understand the risks of taking drugs not prescribed specifically for them
- they think the drugs are safe to use because they are made in a pharmaceutical facility and have been prescribed to someone by a physician
- prescription opioids are easier to get than street drugs
- they have not yet learned other ways to help them cope with stress or unpleasant feelings.
Are There Risks Even If a Young Person a Prescribed An Opioid?
Yes. Prescription opioids are very strong medications and, without careful monitoring, could lead to addiction. Opioids may be prescribed for pain control when other medications have not provided relief. However, careful monitoring by a health professional is essential.
Risk factors for opioid misuse by adolescents include poor academic performance, higher risk-taking levels, depression and regular use of alcohol, marijuana and nicotine. In this population misuse and overdose are the greatest risks.