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Opioid Use in Teens: Risks, Prevention, and Treatments

April 20, 2022

Table of Contents

Opioid use disorder (OUD) in teenagers is less understood and often under-recognized and under-treated because it is a new and, unfortunately, growing problem. 

The risks of opioid dependence and misuse have been increasing in this age range.[1] In many situations, OUD in teens can be treated with the same pharmacological options as adults. 

How Do Teenagers Get Exposed To Opioids?

Teenagers get exposed to opioids the same way adults do, either legally or illegally. Adolescents often obtain and abuse opioid prescriptions belonging to friends or family members. This is a common way teens report their first exposure to opioids. 

Patients with OUD report that their first exposure to opioids was through a legal prescription. Teens can also be prescribed opioids legally after dental work, for example.[2,3] Others may have a surgery or procedure and be prescribed opioids before leaving the hospital. 

One study of patients with self-described OUD found that more than a third stated that their first exposure to opioids was through a legally written prescription.[4] Another cohort study of over 189,000 youths given an initial opioid prescription found that anywhere from 10 - 30% went on to develop an OUD.[5] 

Are Opioids Dangerous for Teenagers?

Opioids are dangerous medications in any age group, especially in teens and young adults. As their brain chemistry is rapidly changing, teenagers can be particularly vulnerable to the effects of addictive substances.[6] 

Therefore, teenagers requiring treatment with opioids in specific situations should be carefully monitored while using these medications. Opioids should always be given under the supervision of an adult and in limited quantities for as short a period as necessary. 

Health care providers and parents should openly talk with teenagers before administering opioids. They should explain the risks and the importance of responsible use, particularly if this is their first time using an opioid. 

If you have questions about giving your child or dependent an opioid, talk to your doctor.

Preventing Opioid Use in Teens 

Prescription opioids must not be shared with others. Adults should never offer opioid medications to their loved ones, even if they have an acute episode of pain or are just trying to be helpful. 

Opioid medications should be kept in a locked or safe location in the home. If you have a surplus of medication from a prior prescription, you can dispose of an opioid by flushing it down the toilet. You could also take it to a healthcare facility or to a doctor’s office where it can be disposed of safely. 

How to Treat Teenagers with Opioid Use Disorder 

The FDA has approved Suboxone as a treatment for OUD in patients sixteen years and older. Some providers may use Suboxone in children even younger in circumstances of extreme addiction, as necessary. 

So far, the success rates of treating OUD with Suboxone in teenagers seem to be similar to those in adults.[1] 

Suboxone is a safe and effective treatment of OUD in teenagers and young adults. Families with a teenager or youth struggling with OUD should consider swift, multi-faceted interventions to prevent the development of addiction, and Suboxone can and should certainly be a component of that intervention. 

How Bicycle Health Can Help with Treating Teens Who Misuse Opioids

Bicycle Health uses Suboxone as a primary medication for dealing with opioid dependence. To learn more about the benefits and the effects of Suboxone, schedule a time to speak with one of our MAT professionals, or call us today at (844) 943-2514.

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Elena Hill, MD, MPH

Elena Hill, MD; MPH received her MD and Masters of Public Health degrees at Tufts Medical School and completed her family medicine residency at Boston Medical Center. She is currently an attending physician at Bronxcare Health Systems in the Bronx, NY where she works as a primary care physician as well as part time in pain management and integrated health. Her clinical interests include underserved health care, chronic pain and integrated/alternative health.

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1. Borodovsky JT, Levy S, Fishman M, Marsch LA. Buprenorphine Treatment for Adolescents and Young Adults With Opioid Use Disorders: A Narrative Review. J Addict Med. 2018;12(3):170-183. doi:10.1097/ADM.0000000000000388

2. Hill, Elena. Opioid Prescribing in Dental Medicine. Bicycle Health. 

3. Wilson JD, Abebe KZ, Kraemer K, et al. Trajectories of Opioid Use Following First Opioid Prescription in Opioid-Naive Youths and Young Adults. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(4):e214552. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.4552

4. Butler MM, Ancona RM, Beauchamp GA, et al. Emergency Department Prescription Opioids as an Initial Exposure Preceding Addiction. Ann Emerg Med. 2016;68(2):202-208. doi:10.1016/j.annemergmed.2015.11.033

5. Wilson JD, Abebe KZ, Kraemer K, et al. Trajectories of Opioid Use Following First Opioid Prescription in Opioid-Naive Youths and Young Adults. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(4):e214552. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.4552


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