The dangers of the prescription pain medication fentanyl came into the collective public eye when Prince suddenly passed away due to an overdose last April. Fentanyl is the strongest prescription opiate pain killer on the market and is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin. Research has shown that as little as ¼ milligram of fentanyl can lead to a fatal overdose.1 To put that into perspective, a standard ibuprofen tablet contains approximately 250 mg, which is 1,000 times the amount of the fentanyl dose that could take a person’s life.
Though it has been on the market for years, fentanyl is now fueling a steady rotation of news headlines, and its startling, undeniable potential to cause widespread injury and death has prompted both the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue alerts concerning the drug.
In July 2016, the DEA issued a warning that fake prescription pain pills and sedatives that actually contained fentanyl were being sold illegally across the country and causing deadly overdoses in people unaware of what drug they were taking. In August 2016, the CDC also issued an alert regarding the increasingly large number of fatal fentanyl overdoses nationwide, many of which came from fentanyl-laced heroin and counterfeit prescription drugs sold as OxyContin, Xanax, and other popular sedatives and pain medications.2
According to the DEA, 1 out of every 10 teens reported using prescription pain medications to get high at least once in the last year. From 2004 to 2010, emergency room visits resulting from prescription medication abuse in children younger than 20 years old rose by 45%.3
Clearly, the lives of America’s teenagers are increasingly endangered when they unknowingly purchase counterfeit medications on the streets that contain fentanyl, since it can be fatal in frighteningly small doses. Understanding what fentanyl is and how it lands in teenagers’ hands, then, is of utmost importance in protecting them from its dangers.
What is it, and How Does it Work?
Fentanyl, a powerful opioid pain medication, was first synthesized in 1960 for use as an anesthetic for patients undergoing certain heart surgeries. In the mid-1990s, the fentanyl patch was created for chronic pain relief and since then, other forms of fentanyl, such as sprays and tablets, have entered the market.4 On the street, it is sold in a variety of forms, including powders, blotter papers, and tablets mixed with other prescription and non-prescription drugs.5
Fentanyl was designed to only be prescribed in cases of chronic or breakthrough pain, typically experienced by cancer patients. Doctors also occasionally prescribed it to patients with severe or chronic pain who had become tolerant to milder opioid pain medications.5
However, what doctors soon discovered is that many of these patients quickly developed a physical tolerance to fentanyl, in which the body becomes so accustomed to the drug that it needs increasingly higher doses of it to feel relief from their pain. In most drugs, physical tolerance develops after a person takes a medication for a long time, so the quicker dependence response began to alert doctors that a greater problem may have been looming.
Because opioids act on the brain’s reward centers, the feelings of euphoria and pleasure they induced prompted people to abuse fentanyl to numb physical or emotional pain, as well as to merely get high. And once dependence had developed, when people tried to reduce or stop using fentanyl, painful and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms surfaced. This often led users to relapse and start using again, even when they had every intention to quit.6
As prescription pain medication abuse rose to epidemic levels in the United States (the number of unintentional overdose deaths from prescription pain medications has more than quadrupled since 19996), fentanyl addiction too rose in dangerous popularity.
Teens and Fentanyl Abuse
Perhaps most disturbing is the trend of teens abusing fentanyl and experiencing its treacherous effects. Understanding how and why this powerful drug has lured so many adolescents is a powerful first step toward protecting them from harm.
Why do teens abuse prescription pain medications? Teens abuse prescription pain medications for a variety of reasons, and it’s not always just to get high. Other reasons a teen may abuse drugs like fentanyl include: 3,7
- Trying to fit in: Teens have a strong desire to fit in with their peers and may be more likely to cave to peer pressure than adults.
- Physical pain relief: Some teens may start abusing painkillers seeking genuine relief from physical pain, and then the drug use quickly spirals out of control.
- Emotional pain relief: Prescription painkillers can temporarily numb emotional pain as well. Many teens may unknowingly self-medicate for other underlying mental health issues such as unresolved childhood traumas, anxiety, and depression.
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How do teens access fentanyl?
Teens obtain fentanyl in a variety of ways, sometimes beginning to abuse the drug after receiving a prescription by a physician to relieve pain due to an injury or illness. More often, however, teens get drugs from their friends, family members, or acquaintances. According to the DEA, 70% of youth report getting prescription medications from friends or family. Many teens have also reported stealing drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinets, while still others use the internet to research and obtain both legal and illegal drugs using online pharmacies, some of which are legal, yet many are not.3
How does prescription pain medication abuse impact teens?
Prescription pain medication abuse rates have soared among adolescents and teens in the past several years. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, 467,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 reported nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers, and of those, 168,000 reported being addicted.8
While teens are not typically prescribed fentanyl, it is possible that they may obtain the drug illegally, either intentionally or unintentionally. Many people, including teens, end up unknowingly taking fentanyl after purchasing fentanyl-laced heroin or counterfeit prescription drugs containing fentanyl. There have been a significant number of recent fentanyl-related overdose deaths—an 18-year-old boy in Sacramento, California, and a 17-year-old girl in Rochester, New Hampshire.9,10
Taking Preventative Steps to Ensure Safety
The risks of teen drug abuse are incredibly high, and fentanyl overdose creates a serious cause for concern. Using the drug just once, intentionally or not, could cost a teen their life. It is crucial that we, as a society, take action now to combat teen drug abuse and protect teens from falling prey to fentanyl.
Where do we begin?
- Education/life skills training: There are several educational programs that provide teens with the knowledge and skill sets needed to help them avoid drug abuse and misuse. One such program is the Life Skills Training (LST) prevention intervention program that takes place in 7th-grade classrooms. The program is designed to help adolescents and teens avoid misusing prescription opioids throughout their teenage years. This program has been shown to statistically reduce opioid abuse up until the senior year of high school.11
- Talk to your children about drugs and their dangers: Talking openly and honestly with your children may be one of the best means of teen drug use prevention—and it won’t cost you a dime. According to the DEA, teens who talk to their parents about the risks of using drugs are half as likely to abuse them than those who do not. Yet only 16% of teens reported having discussed prescription medications with their parents within the last year.3
Make a point to take time and sit down with your kids to let them know the dangers of drug use. Make sure they understand that just because it is a prescription drug doesn’t make it a safer option. Be open about the perceived benefits as well as the risks. Let them know the reasons people choose to abuse drugs as well as the dangers of doing so. If your argument is well-rounded and grounded in facts, your teen may be more receptive.
- Get specific about fentanyl: When you talk with your son or daughter, don’t leave out the details. Be specific about the drug fentanyl and the dangers of its use. Let your child know that it is being sold as counterfeit OxyContin, Xanax, and other prescription drugs.2 If your child knows that he may be unknowingly ingesting a substance that could easily kill him, he may consider it too risky to try any of them.
- Set a good example for your children: If your teen sees you misusing or abusing drugs, they may think it’s okay. Research has shown that parents, just as much as teens, are increasingly abusing prescription medications. Approximately 18% of parents use a prescription medication that was not prescribed to them at least three or more times in their lifetime, 15% of which reported doing so within the past year.3
If you don’t want your teens to abuse drugs, make a healthy choice for them and choose to abstain yourself. If you are using prescription drugs, do so responsibly. If possible, do it out of your child’s sight. If your child does see you, model responsible drug use and consider explaining the purpose of your medication, as well as the risks of using it.
- Do not keep your prescription medications readily accessible: Many teens have reported obtaining prescription drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinets.3 Keep your drugs hidden, both out of sight and out of reach for your children to ensure they don’t take any medications from you.
- Be proactive in your teen’s life: While you may not want to be “that parent,” being involved in your teen’s life can go a long way in potentially saving their life. Ask your children questions. Find out who their friends are, where they’re going, and what kind of activities they are participating in. Openly ask them if they have ever been around any drug use. Consider showing genuine interest and curiosity without coming off as being too judgmental or overprotective, since many teens will clam up and hide information if they fear that their parents may react negatively.
- Keep your teen active: Encourage your children to engage in hobbies and extracurricular activities that both interest them and keep them occupied. Research has indicated that extracurricular activities may reduce many risky behaviors in teens and adolescents, from drug use to skipping school.12
- Get them treatment if they need it; actively participate as a family: If your teen has developed an addiction to fentanyl, consider seeking professional treatment immediately and commit to actively participating as a family. Your involvement is beneficial to yourself and your teen, as well as any other family members who may be affected by your child’s drug use. Most treatment centers offer family therapy as well as support groups for parents and other family members of addicted loved ones.
The dangers of fentanyl use and abuse are abundant and clear, from the miniscule amount needed to be fatal to the many subversive ways it shows up in other drugs. It a serious risk worth taking seriously, especially when it comes to your teens. Educate yourself and then sit down with your kids and educate them as well. Together you can begin to end this tragic epidemic.
If you or someone you love is struggling with fentanyl addiction or other prescription drug abuse, reach out for help today. Getting professional addiction treatment could mean preventing a potentially fatal drug overdose. For more information about your treatment options, call our recovery hotline at .
- NBC News: Johnson, A. (2016). What is Fentanyl? The Drug That Killed Prince Has Killed Thousands of Others.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Emerging Trends and Alerts.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2012). Prescription for Disaster: How Teens Abuse Medicine. 2nd Ed.
- Stanley, T.H. (1992). The history and development of the fentanyl series. Journal of Pain Symptom Management. 7(3-S), 3–7.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). DrugFacts—Fentanyl.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). America’s Addiction to Opioids: Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse.
- NIDA for Teens. (2016). What is Prescription Drug Abuse?
- American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2016). Opioid Addiction. 2016 Facts & Figures.
- The Sacramento Bee. (2016). Fentanyl overdose cases rise to 29, including death of El Dorado Hills teen.
- New Hampshire Union Leader: Haas, K. (2015). Rochester teen died of fentanyl OD; mother among 3 charged.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Life Skills Training Shields Teens From Prescription Opioid Misuse.