By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
A large new analysis of drug use by teenagers and young adults in the U.S. has found a surprisingly high level of prescription opioid use. In a survey of over 56,000 youths, researchers found that 21% of teens and 32% of young adults said they had used opioid medication in the past year.
"The percentages were higher than we expected," said first author Joel Hudgins, MD, of Boston Children's Hospital's Division of Emergency Medicine. "They really highlight how common use of prescription opioids is in this vulnerable population."
The data from the 2015-2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health doesn’t necessarily reflect the environment that exists today. Opioid prescriptions have fallen by 43% since their peak and last year alone declined by a record 17 percent. Many pain patients — of all ages — now have trouble getting opioids prescribed and filled.
During the study period, nearly 4% of teens and 8% of young adults reported misusing prescription opioids or having an opioid use disorder.
Misuse was defined as using opioids “in any way that a doctor did not direct you to use them,” while a use disorder was classified as recurrent use that causes significant impairment and failure to meet major responsibilities at home, work or school.
Researchers were surprised by some of the findings, which are published in the online journal PLOS One. Among youths who reported misusing prescription opioids, 57% said they obtained them from friends or relatives and only 25% percent came from healthcare providers.
"In previous studies in adults, opioids were more commonly obtained from a physician," Hudgins says. "Our findings show that the focus of prevention and treatment should include close friends and family members of adolescents and young adults, not simply prescribers."
Youths who misused opioids, particularly the young adults, often reported using other substances, including cocaine (36%), hallucinogens (49%), heroin (9%) and inhalants (30%). At least half had used tobacco, alcohol, or cannabis in the past month.
In a previous study, the same researchers found relatively high rates of opioid prescribing to youths visiting emergency rooms and outpatient clinics. About fifteen percent of youths were given opioids during ER visits from 2005 to 2015.
"Given these rates of opioid use and misuse, strong consideration should be given to screening adolescents and young adults for opioid use when they receive care," says Hudgins.
More recent surveys have found a steady decline in the misuse of prescription opioids by young people. The most recent Monitoring the Future Survey found that only 3.4% of high school seniors misused opioid medication in 2018.
Misuse of Vicodin and OxyContin among 12th graders has fallen dramatically over the past 15 years, from 10.5% in 2003 to 1.7% in 2018 for Vicodin, and from 4.5% in 2003 to 2.3% in 2018 for OxyContin.