LOS ANGELES (CNS) — Teens who use prescription opioids to get high are more likely to start using heroin by high school graduation, according to a USC study released this week.

“Prescription opioids and heroin activate the brain’s pleasure circuit in similar ways,” said senior author Adam Leventhal, a professor of preventive medicine and psychology and director of the USC Institute for Addiction Science at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Teens who enjoy the ‘high’ from prescription opioids could be more inclined to seek out other drugs that produce euphoria, including heroin.”

Leventhal said the 2013-2017 study — published in the Jan. 8 issue of JAMA Pediatrics — is the first to track prescription opioid and heroin use in a group of teens over time. In 2017, 9 percent of the nation’s 47,600 opioid overdose deaths occurred in people under the age of 25, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to overdose, health risks of heroin use are devastating and include severe addiction, hepatitis C, HIV and other infections.

Using twice-yearly surveys to track high schoolers’ use of various drugs, researchers followed 3,298 freshmen from 10 Los Angeles-area high schools through their senior year. Participants were asked about their previous and current use of prescription painkillers — such as Vicodin, Oxycontin and Percocet — to get high.

The researchers also asked the students if they used heroin or other substances like marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes, methamphetamine and inhalants.

They made statistical adjustments to account for differences in family environment, psychological disposition, family history of substance use and other factors associated with non-medical prescription opioid use.

Of the nearly 3,300 students in the study, 596 reported using prescription opioids to get high during the first 3.5 years of high school. The researchers found that prescription painkiller use made a big difference in who later used heroin: 13.1 percent of current prescription opioid users and 10.7 percent of previous prescription opioid users went on to use heroin by the end of high school. Only 1.7 percent of youth who did not use prescription opioids to get high had later tried heroin by the end of high school.

“Adolescents are sometimes overlooked in the opioid epidemic discussion,” said first author Lorraine Kelley-Quon, a pediatric surgeon and assistant professor of surgery and preventive medicine at Children's Hospital Los Angeles and the Keck School of Medicine. “The association between non-medical opioid use and later heroin use in youth is concerning and warrants further research and health policy interventions.”

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