Do Young-Adult Prescription Opioid Abusers Understand Their Risks?

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In the U.S., significant numbers of young adults are involved in the abuse a prescription opioid medication. An increase in this form of drug abuse largely helps explain the current increase in the frequency of opioid overdoses. In a study published in July 2014 in the International Journal of Drug Policy, a team of American researchers used a small-scale project to investigate how well young-adult prescription opioid abusers understand the risks of their substance involvement. These researchers concluded that young-adult users commonly lack an understanding of several critically important factors that could impact their chances of overdosing.

Prescription Opioid Abuse

Americans abuse prescription opioids more often than any other type of medication. In 2012 (the most recent year available for nationwide statistics gathered by federal researchers), 1.9 percent of all U.S. preteens, teens and adults abused oxycodone, hydrocodone or some other prescription opioid. Broadly speaking, monthly consumption of illegal and illicit substances is highest in young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 (with a peak in people between the ages of 18 and 20). Rates of abuse are also relatively high among 16- and 17-year-old teenagers and young adults between the ages of 26 and 34. Regardless of age, most opioid medication abusers get the substances they take from a friend or family member at no cost. In turn, most of these friends and family members get their opioid medications via a prescription provided by a single physician.

In many cases, young-adult abusers of prescription opioids alter these medications and consume them nasally or intravenously instead of through medically intended oral use. When consumed in this manner, opioid medications produce a drug impact that can closely resemble the impact of the powerful illegal opioid heroin. Research compiled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that injection or inhalation of a prescription opioid may make actual heroin use considerably more likely. In fact, current evidence suggests that close to 50 percent of young adult heroin injectors first abused an opioid medication.

Opioid Overdose

An opioid overdose can occur whenever someone consumes enough of an opioid drug or medication to severely depress the normal rate of activity inside the central nervous system. If activity in this system falls below a certain threshold, the affected individual can experience life-threatening changes in normal body functions that include the basic urge to breathe. When used in a timely manner, an anti-opioid medication called naloxone can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and give emergency personnel an opportunity to provide essential longer-term care. Recent laws have widened the availability of naloxone in many states, and some cities require police officers to carry doses of the medication as a matter of routine policy.

Do Young Adults Know the Risks?

In the study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, researchers from three U.S. institutions used interviews with 46 New York City residents between the ages of 18 and 32 to assess the amount of knowledge that young-adult prescription opioid abusers have regarding the risks of their drug-related activity. All of the participants had abused an opioid medication (i.e., used a medication in unintended ways) in the month prior to the beginning of the study. Some of these individuals had personally experienced and survived an opioid overdose or witnessed someone else in the midst of an overdose.

After reviewing the results of their interviews, the researchers concluded that even those individuals personally experienced with an opioid overdose commonly lacked basic understanding of the risks associated with opioid abuse. For example, the study participants frequently did not know the steps to take in order to prevent the possibility of an overdose. The participants also frequently didn’t know about naloxone or how to use this medication to help someone experiencing an overdose. In addition, despite the potentially highly similar impact of prescription opioid abuse and heroin use, the study participants typically viewed themselves as categorically different from heroin consumers.

The study’s authors identify erroneous belief in a fundamental difference between prescription opioid abuse and heroin use as a main reason young adult opioid medication abusers don’t learn the risks associated with their activity or learn how to prevent fatal outcomes in overdose situations. They conclude that their findings indicate a very real need to improve the quality and quantity of the prevention– and intervention-related information provided to these individuals.

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