Opioids are powerful prescription medications used to treat pain. They can also produce a feeling of euphoria, or a ‘high,’ and short-term use can lead to addiction. Overprescribing and misusing opioids have contributed to an epidemic of addiction, overdoses and death.
Approximately 90 people die from an opioid overdose every day in the U.S.
More alarming, about 3.5 percent of adolescents, or 881,000 kids aged 12-17, misused pain medications last year.
How addiction begins
Addiction often begins with taking a prescribed opioid. However, children also get opioids from kids at school, or take pills prescribed to family members. Illegally obtaining pills to get high has become especially dangerous, as counterfeit pills containing an ultra-potent opioid (fentanyl) are now being sold as prescription-strength oxycodone. A single pill can cause overdose or death.
Talk to your kids
One of the most important things parents can do to protect children is talk openly about the risk of death from using opioids. Every family is vulnerable and even well-adjusted, responsible children are at risk from a single experimental use.
Prevention can start with conversations about medication safety in early childhood.
Parents should model and communicate good medication practices:
- Take medications only as prescribed.
- Keep medications secure and throw away unused prescriptions.
- During grade school, children will likely learn about drugs from other kids. By speaking regularly about the effects of opioids and other drugs, and asking children what they have heard or seen outside of home, parents can correct misinformation and keep children informed of the risks.
Let’s talk frankly
Frank discussions about the health and legal risks of using opioid medications prescribed to someone else are especially important in adolescence.
One way of introducing the topic is to discuss opioid-related stories in the media, including celebrities affected by opioids, the toll opioid abuse and deaths have on families and why the epidemic is a public health emergency. Adolescents may not appreciate the danger of taking a single pill to get high. Sharing information about dangerous counterfeit opioids being sold as prescription-strength pills, as well as the long-term risks of addiction, may be life-saving.
Look for signs
In addition to regular communication, parents should watch for signs that a child might be using opioids.
- Small pupils
- A ‘zoned out’ appearance can result from opioid use
- Changes in behavior and/or declining grades also should alert parents
If concerned that your child is using opioids, talk to them and seek help from their pediatrician, who can connect you with local resources for treating substance abuse in adolescents.
Anne-Michelle Ruha, MD, is clinical professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix and vice chair of the Department of Medical Toxicology at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix.