Teenagers and Addictive Painkillers

The abuse of prescription painkillers has become widespread in recent years. They have become the drugs of choice for many teenagers, many of whom erroneously believe that they are much safer than the illegal drugs available on the street.

Prescription painkillers, however, not only have mind-altering properties but they are also highly addictive. Some are more potent than heroin.

Why are painkillers addictive?

There are three basic types of painkillers used in modern medicine:

  • Opioids – drugs originally produced from the opium poppy that are now man-made and which are used to relieve mild to severe pain.
  • Non-opioids – NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen, some of which are available without prescription and which often irritate the stomach and reduce blood-clotting time.
  • Co-analgesics – used in conjunction with opioid painkillers to reduce the amount of opioid required and lessen the side effects. They include steroids and anti-depressants.

Of these, it is the opioids that pose the greatest risk of addiction. Opium has long been used for pain relief and for recreational purposes and its addictive qualities are well known.

Opioids only mask the pain; they do not cure the underlying cause. They work by attaching to receptors in the body to reduce the sensation of pain but they can also cause drowsiness, nausea, constipation and, sometimes, euphoria. They target those parts of the brain that deal with pleasure and reward; this leads the brain to encourage further use of the drug so that the pleasure can be experienced again.

Commonly prescribed opioid painkillers

Because of their strength and addictive properties, opioids are available only through prescription. They are generally used only for severe pain and patients are closely monitored.

  • Morphine – a common drug that is used both for immediate pain relief and in slow release form to give relief over an extended period. It is available in patches, tablets, powder, capsules, suppositories and as an injectable liquid.
  • Oxycodone – a man-made opioid used when morphine has not been sufficiently effective. It is particularly useful for bone and nerve pain and can be swallowed as a liquid or injected. Capsules and slow release tablets are also available. It has a number of names including Lynlor, Dolocodon and OxyContin.
  • Fentanyl – a man-made opioid that can be found as a slow release patch (Durogesic DTrans, Fensino) and as a fast acting lozenge (Actiq) for immediate pain relief. It is also available in tablet form (Abstral, Effentora) and as a nasal spray (PecFent, Instanyl). Another type of Fentanyl is known as Alfentil (or Rapifen); it is water-soluble, so can be injected or is in lozenge form.
  • Buprenorphine – a medium to strong painkiller, this is available as a patch and as a tablet that should be dissolved under the tongue. Among its other names are BuTrans, Tephine and Transtec.
  • Hydromorphone – this is a strong painkiller that comes as an immediate release capsule, a slow release tablet and as an injectable liquid. It is also known as Palladone.
  • Codiene and Tramadol – these are weak opioids that are available in capsule and tablet form. They are used when non-opioids prove to be insufficiently effective.

Teens and prescription painkillers

Teenagers have identified prescription painkillers as a source of “highs” that they think is safer than street drugs. As opioids, however, these drugs are highly addictive if not used in accordance with proper medical advice.

If you suspect that your teenager is abusing prescription painkillers, you should first check with your doctor or a pharmacist to find out if the drugs are addictive and then look out for the following behaviours:

  • Getting a refill well before the medicine bottle is empty.
  • Faking pain to obtain a prescription for painkillers.
  • Visiting more than one doctor and using a number of pharmacies.
  • Keeping drugs hidden.
  • Excessive sleep.
  • Unusual behaviour and a change in temperament.
  • Sudden weight change.
  • Bouts of drowsiness or hyperactivity.
  • Reduced size of the pupils in the eyes.
  • Signs that drugs are being snorted – rolled up paper, credit cards that are worn at the edges, for example.
  • Constipation.
  • Breathlessness or very slow breathing.

Treatment

Curing opioid abuse is a long and difficult process. Without help, it is intensely unpleasant and will lead to withdrawal symptoms including muscle and bone pain, vomiting, insomnia, chills, shaking and negative moods. Professional help is essential. Painkiller treatment will usually include counselling and medication while support from family and friends also has a vital role.

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