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Prescription Pain Medicine & Heroin: The Link Parents Need to Know

Nearly half of young people who use heroin start by abusing prescription pain medicine such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, codeine, and Fentora—all of which are opioids.

The rise in prescription drug abuse:

In recent years, there has been an uptick in the number of teens who abuse prescription drugs. About 1 in 5 high school students said they have abused prescription drugs, according to a 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States.

Why are teens doing this?

Teens are engaging in this dangerous behavior for a variety of reasons. In some cases, they do it to party and get high, but also to manage stress or regulate their lives. Many teens are abusing pain relievers to cope with academic, social, or emotional stress.

Opioids create a temporary feeling of euphoria, followed by dysphoria, which can easily lead to addiction. Some people end up taking increasingly larger doses in order to regain the euphoric effect, or escape the unhappiness caused by withdrawal. Others find they need to continue taking the drugs not only to reduce withdrawal symptoms but to simply feel normal. Opioids also depress your heart rate and breathing. Large doses can cause sedation and slowed breathing to the point that breathing stops altogether, resulting in death.

Where are teens getting prescription pain medicine?

Two-thirds (66%) of teens who report abuse of prescription pain relievers are getting them from friends, family, and acquaintances. Some teens share prescription medicines among themselves—handing out or selling their own pills or those they've acquired or stolen from classmates. Many start abusing it at a party or with friends, because they're curious or think it will make them feel good.

A very small minority of teens start taking it legitimately when prescribed by a doctor after an injury or dental procedure—but in some cases, legitimate use turns to dependence, abuse, addiction.

Why are opioid-addicted teens turning to heroin?

Heroin and prescription pain medicines both belong to the opioid class of drugs and function similarly in the body and brain. One main factor that contributes to the popularity of a drug is availability, and while efforts to reduce the availability of prescription pain medicine have begun to show success, the supply of heroin has been increasing. Heroin is also far cheaper and easier for teens to obtain than prescription opioids.

About heroin:

Heroin can be smoked or injected, and many teens opt to avoid needles and smoke the drug. Street names for heroin include "Black tar" and "China white." Unfortunately, needle use is rampant among heroin users—increasing a teen's risk of HIV, hepatitis C, and other injection-related illnesses.

With regular use, greater amounts are needed to achieve the same intensity, and physical dependence and addiction develop. Reducing the dosage or quitting "cold turkey" will bring on days of agonizing withdrawal symptoms. Addicts ultimately depend on heroin not to feel good but to avoid feeling bad.

 What should parents do?

  • Educate yourself. Visit and for information, tools, resources and support.

  • Communicate the risks of prescription medicine abuse to your kids. Children who learn a lot about the risks of drugs at home are at least 20% less likely to use drugs than those who do not get that critical message from their parents.

  • Safeguard your medicine. Keep prescription medicine in a secure place, count and monitor the number of pills you have and lock them up—and ask your friends and family members to do the same.

  • Get help. If you think your child has a problem with prescription medicine abuse, please visit or call the toll-free helpline to speak to a parent specialist: 1-855-DRUGFREE (1-855-378-4373).

Additional Information from

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics & (Copyright © 2016)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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