3 Strategies for Protecting Teens From Painkiller Abuse
Doctors and other adults can take a number of important steps to limit teenagers’ illicit access to opioid medications, according to new findings from a team of American researchers.
Teenagers who misuse/abuse opioid medications commonly get those medications from an adult who may or may not have a legitimate prescription. In a study published in February 2015 in the journal Substance Abuse, researchers from four U.S. institutions looked at the steps that doctors and other adults can take to limit teenagers’ access to dangerous prescription opioids. These researchers identified several strategies that may effectively limit teens’ access to these medications.
All opioid medications are natural or synthetic versions of substances found in the opium poppy. There are a large number of these substances, each of which differs from the other in chemically important ways. However, despite their differences, all prescription opioids do three basic things when they enter the human blood stream and travel to the brain: reduce the brain’s ability to receive or respond to pain signals, trigger a powerful sensation called euphoria in the brain’s pleasure center and significantly lower the baseline rate of cell communication in both the brain and spinal cord.
Opioid medications have therapeutic uses that include the relief of various forms of moderate and severe pain, the relief of serious coughs that don’t respond to other treatments and the relief of serious diarrhea that doesn’t respond to other treatments. Unfortunately, misuse of these widely prescribed medications can trigger two major problems: diagnosable opioid abuse/addiction and potentially fatal opioid overdose. Millions of people across the U.S. are addicted to an opioid medication. In addition, roughly 46 Americans die every day after overdosing on an opioid medication.
Teenagers and Prescription Opioids
In collaboration with the University of Michigan, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) tracks year-to-year changes in the number of American teenagers in 12th grade who misuse “narcotics other than heroin,” a group of substances that includes prescription opioids. In line with a decade-old downward trend, the number of 12th graders who inappropriately used these substances at least once fell from 7.1 percent to 6.1 percent between 2013 and 2014. The University of Michigan and NIDA also track the number of eighth graders, 10th graders and 12th graders who consume two popularly abused opioid medications—Vicodin and OxyContin—at least once a year. Annual rates of intake for both of these medications fell by a small amount or a significant amount in all three grades between 2013 and 2014.
How Can Adults Help Limit Access?
In the study published in Substance Abuse, researchers from the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the Denver Health Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente Colorado and the Colorado School of Public Health examined the role that intentional or unintentional adult conduct plays in promoting opioid misuse, opioid abuse/addiction and opioid overdose in teenagers and younger children. Reasons for undertaking this examination include the overall prominence of parents and other adults as conduits for the opioid medications misused by teenagers or younger children, the tendency among some parents to share their prescription opioids with their children and the tendency of some teenagers and younger children to seek access to their parents’ opioid medications.
The researchers identified three strategies that can help limit teens’ and younger children’s inappropriate access to prescription opioids. These strategies are encouraging doctors to emphasize the dangers of opioid medication misuse/abuse when prescribing opioids to their adult patients; making sure that adults who use opioid medications store the medications in locked cabinets that are inaccessible to teens or younger children; and making sure that parents understand the importance of safely disposing of any unused prescription opioids in the household.
The study’s authors note the importance of the actions of doctors and other health professionals in carrying out the identified prevention strategies. They also note the lack of real-world evidence for effectiveness of the identified strategies and point toward a need for additional research to definitively determine the best ways to limit teenagers’ and younger children’s prescription opioid access.
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