Last year’s tragic death of Glee star Cory Monteith from an accidental alcohol and heroin overdose shocked many because Monteith simply did not fit the stereotype of a heroin addict. But the clean-cut high school football star that Monteith played on Glee may have been closer to the profile for teenage heroin abuses than most Americans would like to admit.
Rising young adult and teenage heroin use, however, is an unfortunate reality that Americans can no longer afford to ignore. Alarmingly, 3 out of every 100 U.S. high school students admit to trying heroin, according to the latest research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These numbers may actually be on the lower end, however, since truant teenagers (not included in the survey) are considered to be at the highest risk for heroin use. In any case, teen heroin use is on the rise.
A Common “Gateway” to Teen Heroin Abuse
Prescription painkillers are a common gateway to heroin use. Heroin use often starts after teens find a painkiller in a parent or friend’s medicine cabinet at home. Nearly half of all young adults who use heroin admit to first abusing prescription painkillers like OxyContin or Vicodin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). On average, painkiller abuse begins two years before heroin use. Teens are turning to heroin because it’s easier to obtain than prescription painkillers. One out of every four high school seniors report that they can “easily obtain” heroin.
Experts believe that the increase in teen heroin use is, in part, due to simple economics. OxyContin, previously the drug of choice, now costs upwards of $80 for a single 80-miligram dose. In contrast, a dime bag of heroin is available for $5. Recent research only furthers this conclusion that the rising price of prescription painkillers – along with formulas that make them more difficult to snort in order to quickly get high – is driving the increase in heroin abuse.
A 2012 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine tracked 2500 individuals who were dependent on opioids, following their patterns of substance abuse from July 2009 to March 2012. The study found a 17 percent decrease in OxyContin abuse over this period. In contrast, heroin use doubled.
The study’s lead author Theodore Cicero says that there is an important message: “The message we have to take away from this is that there are both anticipated consequences and unanticipated consequences to these new formulas (for OxyContin). Substance abuse is like a balloon: If you press in one spot, it bulges in another.”
Heroin More Dangerous Today Than Ever Before, Yet Fewer Teens Consider it “Risky”
Heroin is more lethal today than ever before. In 1980, heroin was only 4 percent pure; today, it is 40 percent pure, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Heroin is also so strong that users do not even need to shoot heroin to get high; many teens who are squeamish about needle use prefer to snort or smoke it. At the same time, fewer teens than ever before consider heroin use to be “risky”, according to SAMHSA. Since heroin is stronger than ever, it is also more addictive; one out of every four individuals who try heroin will become addicted.
Heroin reaches the brain in just seven or eight seconds, producing an instantaneous “rush” as the drug bins with opioid receptors. This euphoric surge eventually wears off as heroin users “go on the nod”, alternating between states of being awake and drowsy. Over time, long-term heroin abuse can change brain chemistry and also lead to tolerance. Users need increasingly greater amounts of the drug to achieve the same high. The opioid receptors that heroin activates are also involved in breathing, which is why a single dose of heroin can be so lethal. Individuals who are addicted to heroin must have the drug every 8 to 12 hours in order to avoid painful withdrawal symptoms, including restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia and diarrhea. Going “cold turkey” can actually be fatal amongst heavily dependent users.
Reducing Teen Heroin Abuse: What Parents Can Do
Prevention is truly the best treatment. Teens whose parents regularly talk to them about the dangers of drug abuse are 42 percent less likely to use drugs than those whose parents do not discuss the dangers of drug abuse. However, only one in four teens reports having a conversation with their parents about the dangers of drug abuse.
As a parent, it is never too early to discuss the dangers of drug use with your child. When your child is in high school, it is also important to keep a close eye out for warning signs of potential drug abuse, such as changes in your child’s friendships, academic performance, motivation to work hard, and overall health. Early intervention is essential to preventing long-term addiction. Finally, since prescription drugs often serve as a gateway to heroin abuse, never leave unused medications in a place where your child can easily access them; lock up any prescription drugs that are currently in use or flush unused drugs down the toilet.
While heroin is highly addictive, there is hope. Substance abuse treatment centers can help teens take the first steps back to sobriety through methadone maintenance programs that make it easier to discontinue heroin abuse.
Give us a call at 877-466-0620 to learn more about heroin abuse and how we can provide support.