OxyContin and Teens: The Cold Hard Facts

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It may be hard to believe, given that we are talking about a legal prescription drug, but oxycodone is one of the most addictive substances on Earth. This narcotic opioid painkiller, sold primarily under the brand name OxyContin, is in the same class of drugs as heroin, and its biological impact is quite similar. If used with caution and as prescribed, OxyContin can be taken safely in most instances, but when the drug is misused, the results can be disastrous and even life-threatening. OxyContin is formulated for extended-release, meaning it dissolves slowly in the stomach and doles out its payload at a measured pace. But many recreational users will crush it and snort it or dissolve it in water and inject it, and when administered by these methodologies, OxyContin delivers a vastly more powerful jolt (with a boosted addictive capacity). Tamper-proof oxycodone products have made such alterations more difficult, but oxycodone is such an inherently addictive substance that dependency can still develop from continued consumption of the pills that contain it. Its effectiveness as a painkiller is unquestioned. But if taken excessively, OxyContin can also leave its users feeling warm, wonderful and unconquerable. When used as an intoxicant, the drug creates a euphoric but still deeply relaxed state of mind, and it is this reality-bending capacity that makes oxycodone products so seductive to people seeking an escape from persistent physical or emotional pain. But like most pharmaceutical medications, OxyContin can cause a lot of troubling side effects. Nausea, dizziness, loss of appetite, dry mouth, mood swings, irritability, breathing problems, headaches and constipation are all associated with OxyContin. Naturally, the more the drug is used, the more serious the symptoms. But here is the most ominous fact of all about OxyContin, oxycodone products and opioid painkillers in general: prescription drugs in the opioid class are the leading cause of drug overdose death. Prescription opioids kill more people than all illegal drugs combined, by a ratio of almost two to one. And of all the medications available from within this classification, OxyContin has claimed more lives than any other.

Teen OxyContin Abuse by the Numbers

Prescription medications as a category are the second-most abused drug among teens, trailing only marijuana. OxyContin isn’t currently at the top of the list of most misused prescription substances, however, partly because of its cost and partly because of its new tamper-resistant formula. In 2013, 2 percent of all U.S. 8th graders, 3.4 percent of all 10th graders and 3.6 percent of all 12th graders had taken OxyContin (but not as prescribed) within the last year, according to statistics revealed in the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s latest Monitoring the Future publication. From 2002 to 2005, there was a dramatic 40 percent increase in OxyContin use among adolescents, and it was this time period that marked the true arrival of the drug on the teen scene. Use has actually dipped since 2010 (when the tamper-resistant version of OxyContin hit the market), but the decline has been small and may not represent a long-term trend. A 2011-2012 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that about 75 percent of adolescents misusing prescription drugs got their supplies from friends or relatives, either for free or for a small price. Surprisingly, only 4 percent of users were forced to steal drugs from medicine cabinets and only a little over 4 percent were buying their drugs on the black market, contradicting commonly held beliefs about how young people are obtaining prescription medications. But this only proves that teens don’t need to resort to underhanded means to get their hands on dangerous drugs like OxyContin, and it shows their misuse of such substances is being aided and abetted by “friends” or “loved ones” who presumably should know better. It is tempting to think that vibrant, healthy, young people might be less likely to die or suffer terrible aftereffects from taking OxyContin or a similar type of opioid, but the numbers show this is not the case. In 2011, the (legal) opioid-related mortality rate for those in the 15 to 24 age group was 3.7 per 100,000, which was almost double the rate of death caused by illegal drug overdose. Meanwhile, 12 percent of 2011 emergency room visits related to pharmaceutical drug abuse involved oxycodone products (the highest percentage for any particular type of drug), and people in the 12 to 20 age group comprised about 12 percent of this total. Such statistics prove that OxyContin is just as dangerous for young people as it is for anyone else, and kids who take it without a legitimate medical reason are playing Russian roulette with their futures and their lives.

A (Deadly) Family Affair

The street value of a single OxyContin pill could be $50 or more, depending on the size of the dosage. This won’t keep young people from getting their hands on it, but it does have an inhibitory effect. The tamper-proof formula that makes the drug harder to break down is another barrier that would-be OxyContin abusers face, and there has been a drop in levels of misuse since this form of the drug became available four years ago. But, unfortunately, opioids are opioids. All reach the same brain receptors and all are capable of feeding an addiction, and when people become addicted to one kind of opioid, they can continue to feed their habit by switching to another if necessary. Three different studies found that almost half of all young heroin addicts started out on prescription opioids before migrating over to the world’s most infamous illicit drug. Heroin is much cheaper than prescription opioids, meaning the cost barriers that might prevent adolescents from developing runaway OxyContin habits don’t apply to its illegal cousin. The move to crush- and dissolve-resistant OxyContin has not really helped the situation much either. A 2012 report in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that recent reductions in the abuse of oxycodone had been accompanied by a 60 percent increase in the misuse of two other prescription opioids called fentanyl and hydromorphone. This same study found a recent doubling of heroin abuse among the drug-using crowd, so it appears opioid abusers will go wherever they have to go to get their fix once they have developed an addiction to a drug in this class.

Treatment for OxyContin Dependency

The only sensible way to curb opioid addiction is to stop it in its tracks. Teens experimenting with OxyContin can slip into dependency fast and their fall can be hard. Once things reach this stage, professional treatment services are required to get lost young souls back on a safe and sober path.

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