Our Nation’s Opioid Crisis, And The Surprising Reason Our Teenagers Are Getting Addicted

by Melissa L. Fenton
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If I asked you what kills more Americans every year than car accidents and gun violence, what would your answer be? Heart disease or cancer?

Nope. It’s drug overdoses.

It’s no secret that our nation is currently under siege from something that at one time or another has probably sat in everyone’s home medicine cabinet — prescription painkillers, or opioids. Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin and powerful pain relievers available legally with a prescription such as oxycodone, codeine, and morphine.

The U.S. consumes about 80% of the world’s entire supply of opioids. In 1991, 76 million prescriptions for opioids were handed out, but recent numbers tell a far different story. In 2013, 207 million were handed out. Yes, you read that right.

It’s no wonder the overdose deaths involving prescription opioids have quadrupled since 1999 as well as the legal medical sale of these drugs, and each day more than 1,000 people are treated in emergency rooms for opioid misuse.

On August 10, President Trump even declared the nation’s opioid addiction a national emergency, citing advice from a White House advisory panel who said the opioid crisis has reached “unprecedented, catastrophic proportions.” And others agree, like Robert Anderson, who oversees death statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He says, “I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this. Certainly not in modern times.” Our surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murphy, believes it is a national public health crisis, stating, “Substance use disorders represent one of the most pressing public health crises of our time.”

The use and abuse of opioid prescription painkillers looks much different from what we think of as “real” drug abuse. These are not illicit drugs being sold in alleys. Rather, they are legitimized because they are legal, heavily regulated, and produced by pharmaceutical companies. But one of the drugs they produce — fentanyl — is 100 times more potent than morphine. Even scarier is the fact Americans are now replacing their evening glass of wine with prescription painkillers as relief for anxiety, depression, and stress when that was never their intended use, and its consequences are deadly.

So how, why, and where are these painkiller addictions starting? One of the most shocking and unintended ways our country is getting addicted to opioids is happening during the teen years, and I don’t mean from teenagers seeking out the drugs illegally with intent to abuse. Sadly, it’s coming right from their doctor’s offices, after minor surgeries such as wisdom teeth removal or those for sports-related injuries. When looking at trends among teen opioid use, researchers found a direct correlation between teens taking the drug first for medical reasons and then later taking them for non-medical reasons, thus beginning the abuse cycle.

Doctors are often sending teenagers home with bottles of 60–90 count narcotic pain pills for pain that can not only be treated with less-addictive pain relievers, but also with far fewer pills and zero refills. Without proper instruction on their use, teens are attempting to relieve their pain, but when some discontinue use of the pills, they may unknowingly experiencing opiate withdrawal symptoms, leading them right back to more pills. And when the pills run out?

Well, that leads us to another startling epidemic: heroin use and overdose among teens. CNN reports that the rate of teen overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids (e.g., fentanyl) and heroin has grown among 15–19-year-olds from 0.1 deaths per 100,000 in 2002 to 0.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2015 — a sevenfold increase. Further, among this age group, the rate of heroin overdose deaths in 2015 was 1 for every 100,000 teens — three times the rate in 1999.

This is serious, scary stuff, folks.

As parents, we need to be exceedingly vigilant and highly aware of what narcotic pain relievers we allow in our households, and as health consumers, we should be wary of any physician who so easily would prescribe 60–90 count pill bottles to a teenager. We need to ask extensive questions about their necessity and use, and we need to involve our teenagers in the pain-management process as much as we can, ensuring they are well aware of the potential dangers of this kind of pain relief. This issue isn’t going to go away overnight, so we need to be aware and vigilant.