COMMENTARY: Teens, young adults susceptible to opioid abuse

By now we’ve all seen or heard the headlines: the United States is in the midst of a national opioid crisis that claims the lives of 91Americans each day — one person every 16 minutes.

This epidemic isn’t just happening to other communities. It has reached Nevada and is threatening the health and well-being of our friends, neighbors and loved ones. Since 2008, more Clark County residents have died each year from opioid overdoses than from firearms or motor vehicle traffic accidents. From 2012 to 2014, the mortality rate from opioid overdoses in Clark County was almost 70 percent higher than the national rate.

Sadly, this epidemic has taken an outsized toll on young people in our communities. Young adults are the biggest misusers of prescription drugs in the United States — including opioid pain relievers — and the rate of deaths from drug overdose among 12- to 25-year-olds in Nevada has more than doubled since 1999.

Most people use drugs for the first time when they are teenagers, and drug use is highest among people in their late teens and 20s. Early intervention is critical to preventing long-term addiction issues, and parents are often the “first responders” when it comes to helping their children avoid or overcome a substance-use disorder. Fortunately, there are steps that parents and other adults in a young person’s life — including coaches, teachers and mentors — can take to help prevent opioid addiction or intervene when misuse becomes a problem.

October is National Substance Use Prevention Month. I encourage parents and other responsible adults to educate themselves about the risks of opioid use and how to step in and take action if a young person needs help. Here are some tips for prevention and intervention that can help save the life of someone you care about:

Address the issue: Opioids are a necessary and useful part of treatment for some medical conditions, but these powerful drugs come with a high risk of misuse and dependency. Talk to your kids openly and honestly about the dangers of opioid misuse, and make sure all medications in your home are stored safely and securely. Research shows that 80 percent of all heroin users started out misusing commonly prescribed opioid painkillers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine.

Understand the risks: Many teens and young adults first use opioids prescribed by their doctor after a common medical issue, such as a sports injury or wisdom tooth surgery. Talk to your provider about whether your child truly needs to take opioids or if there are lower-risk options available for addressing pain during recovery from an injury or surgery.

Spot the signs: Common indicators of substance use include general changes in mood and behavior. A person who is actively misusing opioids may seem drowsy and disoriented; movements may be slowed and speech might be slurred; and they may seem to fall asleep while sitting or even standing. Drug paraphernalia that could indicate heroin use includes vials, needles, rubber tubing and spoons that are bent or burned on the bottom.

Find appropriate support: Opioid dependency is a chronic condition that requires medical intervention. If your adult child needs help, look for a treatment program that incorporates medication-assisted treatment. Research shows that it increases the odds for long-term recovery and reduces the likelihood of relapse by easing symptoms of withdrawal and reducing cravings. Many of the most effective opioid treatment programs combine such treatment with talk therapy and ongoing community-based services, such as peer support from individuals with personal experience living in long-term recovery from substance use.

Jaclyn Latteri is a pharmacy site director for OptumRx. She is based in Las Vegas.

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