Muir Wood therapist, David Laing

A Parent’s Guide for Understanding Teen Opioid Abuse

Teen Heroin Abuse: How Parents Can Handle The Epidemic

Parents might feel as though heroin abuse would never take place between the walls of their home, as their children are provided with so many opportunities and so much pampering that they’d never be driven to use this powerful drug. As a result, many parents remain blissfully unaware that their children are experimenting with heroin, until their kids land in the hospital with drug-related health problems.

If asked to describe the physical characteristics and social background of someone who abuses heroin, many people would begin to describe a character that would have been at home in Baltimore during the filming of The Wire. This person would have a low income, a low level of education and a sporadic relationship with safe housing. Parents might feel as though heroin abuse would never take place between the walls of their home, as their children are provided with so many opportunities and so much pampering that they’d never be driven to use this powerful drug.

As a result, many parents remain blissfully unaware that their children are experimenting with heroin, until their kids land in the hospital with drug-related health problems. Learning more about what heroin abuse looks like could help parents to spot the abuse, and step in when their children begin to experiment.

A Powerful Drug

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that 23 percent of people who use heroin become dependent on the drug. This is a remarkable statistic, indicating just how addictive this drug really is, but it’s not surprising for people who understand how this drug works within the human body. In a way, this is a drug that’s been specifically designed to overwhelm the human body, and it’s not surprising that addictions would follow.

The human body is dotted with receptors for opiates like heroin. Many are clustered within the brain, and when opiates enter the body, they attach to these receptors and a series of chemical reactions take place, causing the body to release natural chemicals that signal pleasure.

These are the same sorts of chemicals the brain would release in response to something rewarding, such as a good meal or an unexpected gift, but heroin causes the brain to release far more chemicals than it would ever release alone. The person feels simply overwhelmed with pleasure, as though a blanket of goodness has enveloped the person. When this rush wears off, the person feels calm, relaxed and warm, and the person may nod off to sleep.

When mere dabbling becomes compulsive use, in which the teen keeps using the drug even though the consequences of that drug use are apparent, an addiction has set in, and the chemical changes within the brain are likely responsible.
The brain is designed to adjust in response to sensory overload, amending its chemical responses and tweaking its receptors. This is a survival technique, as an overwhelmed brain can incapacitate the person. The brain adjusts in order to ensure that the body stays alive. Unfortunately, people who abuse heroin dislike this adaptability of the brain, as it requires them to take larger and larger doses of heroin to feel the same overwhelming sensations. Sometimes, they might need heroin in order to feel normal, as the brain has adjusted to such a degree that it can’t function normally without access to heroin.

Heroin and Teens

National Geographic reports that heroin use rates among adolescents jumped 80 percent between 1999 and 2009. It’s possible that the physical changes heroin can bring about might make it an attractive drug for some users to try. For example, teens who are worried about college pressure or peer influences might enjoy the boost of pleasure and euphoria heroin can bring about. The drug can wipe out all petty concerns within a teen’s mind, and this can make day-to-day life seem just a bit more bearable. Some teens, however, may use heroin because they’re smart shoppers.

Researchers suggest that teens begin their addictive drug use by experimenting with prescription pills they find in the family medicine cabinet, including:

  • Benzodiazepines like Valium
  • Opioid painkillers like OxyContin
  • Stimulants like Ritalin
  • Sleep medications like Ambien

Just as a teen might reach for an aspirin to kill minor pain, these teens might choose downers like Valium to help them deal with anxiety or stimulants like Ritalin to help them stay awake. These teens may tell themselves that the drugs they take are safe because they come from pharmacies and not from dealers, but in time, these same teens may deplete their own medicine chests and they may reach out to dealers for help. It can be an expensive proposition, and heroin might be a viable solution.

According to the New York Times, prescription painkillers can cost up to $40 per pill, while a bag of heroin might cost only $5. Teens might need to buy multiple pills in order to achieve a high, as their bodies will adjust to prescription drugs just as they would adjust to heroin, but a bag of heroin might allow them a six- to eight-hour high. It might seem like a good deal to teens. This transition from prescription drugs to heroin might seem far-fetched, but it is quite common among teens. In one study of the issue, about 85 percent of teens said they’d abused prescription painkillers before they tried heroin.

Teens might abuse heroin by injecting the drug, but according to a study in the journal Pediatrics, heroin sold on the street now is of such high purity that teens can snort the drug directly. They might feel that doing so allows them to evade detection, as they won’t be leaving behind matches, dirty spoons, needles or other paraphernalia that parents can spot in order to detect heroin use.

Signs of a Problem

According to the Treatment Episode Data Set, teens who enter treatment programs for heroin addiction were 14.8 years old when they used the drug for the very first time. It might be scary to even think about a young teen toying with heroin, but as this article has made clear, a large number of teens are trying heroin and it makes sense for parents to be alert for warning signs.

During a heroin-induced high, users tend to move in and out of sleep on a repeated basis. They may seem disoriented or sedated, unable to awaken or respond when they’re called. It’s easy to ignore this sign as mere teen-related exhaustion, but teens on heroin are much more sedate than an average teen. These are kids who are profoundly sleepy and tired, who have cold and clammy skin, and pinprick pupils. Teens like this might need a trip to the hospital for detoxification, as sweeping sedation like this can lead to loss of consciousness and/or cessation of breathing.

Teens who abuse heroin might also:

    • Seem even more private and solitary than usual, sneaking off to their rooms repeatedly
    • Drop out of sports or extracurricular activities
    • Seem slow and sedated, followed by periods of intense hyperactivity
    • Lose interest in grooming and cleanliness
    • Develop flu-like symptoms, including a runny nose, nausea and clammy skin

Some teens might readily admit that they’ve been abusing heroin when they’re asked to do so, but other teens might adamantly refuse to admit that heroin is an issue for them, even when they’re presented with evidence of their drug abuse. Sometimes, teens like this are best approached with the help of an interventionist. This professional can help the family develop a conversation about addiction that breaks through the walls of denial and helps the teen to see how the addiction is both real and dangerous. An interventionist can also help the family choose a treatment program that can help.

Overcoming Use

Teens who are experimenting with heroin on a periodic basis might need a firm talk and a set of serious consequences. If teens are just playing with the drug, they might need a reminder that drug use isn’t allowed and won’t be tolerated. A few sessions with a counselor might also be helpful, as teens like this sometimes need assistance with stress management and coping skills. In therapy, they can learn how to handle pressure without relying on drugs, and this could keep them safe from addiction during adulthood.

Teens who are addicted to heroin might need more than a few one-on-one talks with a counselor. Heroin causes chemical changes within the brain, as mentioned, and these changes can be difficult for teens to overcome without help. Some teens might need medications to help them deal with cravings, and some teens may need inpatient care, to allow them to learn how to handle the temptation to use drugs long before they’re released into the wider world. These teens might slip back into drug use if they continue to live at home, but in a structured facility, they’ll be removed from temptation and healing might take place.

Treatment plans can vary widely, depending on the needs of the teen and the available treatments at the facility, but according to an article in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, length of time spent in treatment is the most reliable predictor of success. Those who stay enrolled for long periods of time tend to do better than those who drop out early. When parents enroll their children in care for heroin addiction, they should keep this factor in mind and remember that real healing may take months, or even years, to achieve.

At Muir Wood, we’d like to help your son take the first step. We provide comprehensive care for heroin addictions, including both detox and rehab services, and our counselors are adept at providing therapies that can reach adolescent boys and help them work through the challenges they face. We provide a male-only program, and the treatments we provide have been specifically tailored to meet the needs of adolescent boys. If you’d like to learn more, please download our admissions packet or call our toll-free number.

The Dangers of Morphine Abuse

For patients who undergo any intensive or invasive medical procedure or find themselves in the hospital and in severe pain, morphine is a common choice in pain relief medication. Though extremely effective in the medical setting, however, for many patients, the drug can be a means to an end for getting high when they are addicted to opiates like painkillers or heroin. For some, the initial hospital experience or a take-home prescription for the medication to treat chronic pain is the first step in a lifelong addiction – and teenagers are not exempt.

If you believe that your teen is physically and/or psychologically dependent on morphine or another opiate drug, don’t hesitate to take action. At Muir Wood, we provide intensive treatment for adolescent and teen boys as they break free from drug dependence and move toward a brighter future.

How Do Teens Access Morphine?

It’s rare for a teenager to have a prescription of his own for this strong medication. So how do teens even get their hands on the drug and develop a dependence?

  • Friends
  • Family members who have a prescription (either with or without their knowledge)
  • Street dealers of the drug
  • Their own prescription, if they are diagnosed with chronic or acute pain or fake these symptoms

Morphine and the Development of Addiction

When doctors administer morphine, they either do so by injection or use a morphine drip, catheter or needle; in some cases, the patient may even be able to control to some degree how much morphine they receive and how often they receive it. Though it is possible to develop a dependence while under medical supervision, it is not common.

It is when the patient is sent home with a prescription of their own and the ability to manage it without a doctor measuring out each dose that the situation can get out of hand.

Should Teens Avoid Taking Morphine?

When their child is in pain, parents will sometimes say “yes” to anything that will make that pain stop – including the use of addictive medications like morphine. Though it may be appropriate to use morphine in acute situations in the hospital, and every post-operative or chronic pain case will be different, in a teenager, it is almost always recommended to avoid the use of such overwhelming and addictive drugs.There are a number of alternate options that should be tried first in the hopes that some combination of less dangerous measures will be effective, thus allowing the child to avoid all the risks of morphine abuse and addiction.

In some cases, it is clear from the start that your teen should not be exposed to morphine except in the most extreme circumstance.

Certain people should avoid addictive opiate painkillers at all costs, including:

  • Those who have a past history of substance abuse or addiction
  • Those who are allergic to morphine
  • Those who are allergic to codeine
  • Those who are taking certain other medications, such as some pain relievers, cough medications, cold medications, allergy medications, sleep aids, tranquilizers and antidepressants
  • Those who currently suffer from liver disease, kidney disease, alcoholism, lung disease, thyroid disease, heart disease, lung problems or urinary problems, or who have suffered from any of these ailments in the past
  • Those who use tobacco products

Heroin Addiction and Morphine: The Connection

Morphine is hard to come by, especially for teens who don’t have the option of “doctor shopping” or heading into an emergency room to falsely present the symptoms that warrant a prescription for opiate drugs. Parents should note that drugs like Percocet, Lortab, oxycodone, hydrocodone and others are similar in effect to morphine and the presence of these pills in your son’s possessions is equally worrisome.

Additionally, many teens opt for a far cheaper and easier to obtain drug that is just as dangerous when they can’t get their hands on opiate painkillers: heroin. Available on the street and at a third of the price, teens often choose to augment their pill habit with heroin, a drug that has a slew of risks all its own:

Increased risk of hepatitis C or HIV infection. Many kids use needles to inject heroin – and share them. Should they share with an infected person, they too could contract the disease.
Increased risk of deadly acute medical issues. Abscesses at the injection site and blood and heart valve infections are common.
Chance of overdose. Though it is not more likely to overdose on heroin as compared to morphine, the varying quality of the drug makes it more difficult to gauge a “correct” dose and avoid inadvertent overdose.

Long-Term Effects

Continued use of a powerful opiate drug like morphine will inevitably lead to one or more long-term negative effects. Some of the long-term effects that are often caused by the regular abuse of morphine include:

    • Changes in bowel movements or habits; constipation is the most common of these

Decreased sexual drive or interest

  • A physical need or craving for the drug, which can lead to the presence of withdrawal symptoms when the drug is not used
  • Physical and/or psychological dependence
  • Increased risk of HIV, hepatitis, and other infections if needles are used as the method of ingestion or due to unprotected sex with infected partners under the influence
  • Increased risk of overdose and premature death

NOTE: It’s important to understand that a morphine overdose or adverse reaction can occur the very first time a person uses the drug, so it’s never “safe” to use or abuse morphine. Long-term addicts are not immune to these risks.

The Horror of Morphine Detox: Myth or Fact?

Many people who are living with an active addiction to morphine fear the detox that they will have to go through during the initial stages of treatment. Too often, when without the drug, they have experienced the withdrawal symptoms associated with detox and know that they are uncomfortable and unpleasant to say the least. But are they horrible?

This depends on a number of factors, including:

  • The amount of the morphine dose at the time of detox
  • The length of addictive use of the drug
  • Whether or not other drugs of abuse are used regularly or addictively
  • The existence or not of co-occurring mental health symptoms or disorders

The good news is that the withdrawal symptoms associated with morphine detox can be mitigated and treated by medical personnel who specialize in the treatment of substance abuse.

A morphine addict will have a much easier time during detox when they undertake the process in a medical facility than if they attempt to go it alone at home.

Morphine Withdrawal Symptoms

Some of the withdrawal symptoms associated with morphine detox may include any or all of the following:

  • Intense sweating
  • Severe stomach cramps
  • Chills or shaking
  • Uncontrollable diarrhea
  • Crying
  • Runny nose
  • An inability to remain still
  • Muscle pain
  • Back pain
  • Extreme irritability
  • Inability to sleep
  • Hypertension
  • Changes in heart rate
  • Vomiting

Because complications can develop during detox, especially when there are underlying medical issues, patients are advised to avoid attempting detox at home. Parents should not “order” their teens to simply stop taking the drug when these symptoms are in evidence. Rather, medical treatment should be sought immediately.

The Impact of Addiction

It’s not just difficult for teenagers to get morphine without a prescription; it’s difficult for anyone. The drug is heavily regulated and there are a number of measures in place to stop people from getting the drug with the purpose of maintaining an addiction.

However, these regulations don’t stop addiction, though they may work to prevent some from developing a dependence upon the drug in some cases. Ultimately, it puts addicts in a desperate position: they “need” more of the drug and many choose to get it at any price. Teens strung out on morphine may choose to:

    • Steal the drugs from pharmacies
    • Commit crimes ranging from petty theft to car jacking to prostitution in order to get the money to pay for the expensive pills on the street
    • Commit fraud by stealing prescription pads to write their own scripts
    • Buying the drugs illegally online or on the street
    • The goal is to identify addiction early enough in the user to prevent them from resorting to these behaviors, but in some cases, it is these behaviors that highlight the underlying addiction issue and make it clear that help is needed – immediately.

Can I Send My Son to Drug Rehab If He Doesn’t Want to Go?

It may be clear to everyone but your son that he has a debilitating drug problem that is destroying his life. He may in fact be deluded to the effects of his addiction – or he simply may not care.

The fact is that if your son is under the age of 18 and you are his legal parent or guardian, his preference when it comes to medical treatment of any kind is irrelevant. If it is clear that he is in need of addiction treatment, you can send him to rehab no matter his opinion, and if you do, you are not alone.

Ending Morphine Addiction

Unfortunately, breaking free from morphine dependence – or addiction to any drug or alcohol – is not a matter of willpower. Rather, morphine addicts will need qualified, professional help in order to stop their drug abuse. This is especially true for teens, because the effects of morphine abuse and withdrawal symptoms can be devastating and impossible to handle without medical assistance.

If you find that your teen is abusing morphine, don’t write it off as “typical teenage rebellion” or something he will “grow out of.” Instead, treat the abuse as the serious problem it is and seek help for him now.

The Tenets of Effective Opiate Addiction Treatment

One of the first things to look for in a morphine rehabilitation program is the promise of a safe, supervised and controlled detox. Medical care and monitoring are necessary, and it’s important to know that your child will be protected every step of the way. The next necessity for your child is ongoing and intensive therapy. Learning the why of addiction is important, but for your teen, learning the how of avoiding relapse is crucial to his ability to make better choices once he returns home.

Absolutely imperative, however, is that you opt for a drug rehab program that is:

      • Only for teen patients
      • Designed with the specific needs of the teenager in mind
      • Inclusive of family and supportive of creating a strong home life for the teen

Staffed by experienced substance abuse treatment providers who specialize in administering effective therapy and rehabilitation to teens

Here at Muir Wood, we provide treatment for adolescent and teen boys. Drug dependence, co-occurring mental health issues, behavioral disorders, academic performance, family dynamics – all this and more are incorporated into our comprehensive, evidence-based here in Northern California. Download an admissions packet, or contact our call center now to learn more.