Opiate Abuse in Pediatric Patients

January 20, 2016 Elizabeth Meade, MD

There is a quiet public health crisis in the US that is unknown to many parents and even physicians. Addiction to opiates, or narcotics, has skyrocketed. It is estimated that more than 2 million Americans abuse prescription opiate drugs, and we are now seeing increasing rates of heroin use for the first time in decades.

This epidemic of opiate addiction is affecting our children as well. Researchers at New York University recently reported that three-quarters of high school heroin users started with prescription opiates before moving on to heroin. Prescription opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999, and heroin overdose deaths have nearly tripled since 2010.& Some 5 percent of 12th graders used Vicodin for non-medical reasons in 2014.

What Should Parents Know?

  • Most adolescents obtained prescription opiates from a friend or relative, either for free, for money or without asking
  • Almost a quarter of high school students who had used prescription opiates more than 40 times also had used heroin at some point
  • Teens may think prescription opioids are “safe” to use recreationally because they are prescribed by doctors and may be kept around the house, or used as intended by other family members.
  • Prescription opiates can be bought fairly easily on the street but pills can be expensive, which is why those who develop an addiction are increasingly transitioning to heroin, which costs less.

What Can Parents Do?

  • Know exactly what medications your child is prescribed, and how much.  Rarely should a patient need more than three to five days of opiate medications for an acute illness or injury (unless the patient has chronic pain or other ongoing issues). Ask that your child not be prescribed more than this, and whether their pain could be reasonably controlled with non-opiate medications.
  • Keep all prescription medications locked away and dispense them to the child or teen yourself.
  • If you have “leftover” opiate medications for any family members living in the home, dispose of them properly rather than keeping them around once they are not needed. You can take controlled substances to law enforcement offices, or call and ask your pharmacy where to take them.
  • Ask your child what he or she knows about drug use, and opioid medications in general. Explain that these medications are not safe to use recreationally, just because they are not “illegal.”  Discuss the potential for addiction and the consequences of using.

Always talk to your child's doctor if you are worried that he or she is abusing any drug or medication. You can find a Swedish pediatrician here.

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