A National Emergency on Opioid Usage with Teens and Young Adults

Published on 
August 16, 2017


With the rise in national opioid abuse, some parents might wonder if their teens have heard about, encountered or even tried opioids. Diane Tanaka, MD, medical director of the Teenage and Young Adult Health Center, the Homeless Adolescent Wellness Center and the My Voice Transition Program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, helps give us a better understanding of opioids and how parents can prepare themselves.

What are opioids?

Diane Tanaka, MD: Opioids are narcotics used to treat pain, and can be taken by mouth or intravenously. Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin and Percocet (oxycodone), and fentanyl are the most common prescription opioids that are being abused. Heroin also belongs to the opioid class and is an illicit drug.

When are they usually prescribed and are they ever prescribed to kids or teens?

DT: Opioids are typically prescribed to treat painful conditions such as tooth extractions, recovery from surgical procedures (either minor or major surgery), back pain, fractures, etc.

Children and teens are prescribed opioids after dental extractions, such as wisdom tooth extraction, after fracturing a bone, or after undergoing minor surgical procedures. If they are hospitalized for a surgical procedure such as scoliosis repair, they will be prescribed intravenous opioids to manage their post-operative pain.

Are you seeing a rise in opioid misuse among teens?

DT: Fortunately, I am not. Nationwide, 2.9 percent of 12th graders abuse Vicodin and 3.4 percent of 12th graders abuse Oxycontin (Monitoring the Future, 2016). There has been a decrease in the abuse of Vicodin and Oxycontin among high school students since 2009.

What are the dangers of opioid abuse?

DT: Dangers include suppression of the respiratory system, which leads to respiratory arrest. The heart rate also slows. Teens can die if they overdose on opioids, as they will stop breathing and their heart will also stop.

What can parents do to help secure their medicine? What kinds of things should they look for?

DT: The best thing that parents can do is to discard any unused narcotic medication that they are no longer using.

If possible, parents should keep track of how many pills of their narcotics they have used. That way, they will be alert to the fact that their child may have taken some without their knowledge. Parents should never share their narcotic medication with their child/teen.

How can parents dispose of this drug if it is available at home?

DT: Sheriff’s offices and pharmacists can provide information as to where people can safely dispose of narcotics. Some pharmacies offer certain days where people can bring unused medications to dispose of them.

Unfortunately, pharmacies cannot accept unused medications at a patient’s local pharmacy.

What are some of the signs that parents should look out for if their child is possibly taking opioids?

DT: There may be a decline in the child’s school performance. Increased sleepiness, or “nodding” off, when the teen should not be, can also be a sign of opioid abuse.

What are some resources or options parents can turn to?

DT: Parents can talk to their pediatrician if they have concerns that their teen is abusing opioids or heroin. Also, the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles has a Substance Abuse and Prevention Program that can be contacted at 323-361-2463.