Evidence-Based Reviews

Opioid use disorder in adolescents: An overview

Shikha Verma, MD
Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist
Rogers Behavioral Health
Kenosha, Wisconsin

The author reports no financial relationships with any companies whose products are mentioned in this article, or with manufacturers of competing products.

Treatment needs to include interventions that address young patients’ unique needs.



Ms. L, age 17, seeks treatment because she has an ongoing struggle with multiple substances, including benzodiazepines, heroin, alcohol, cannabis, and prescription opioids.

She reports that she was 13 when she first used a prescription opioid that was not prescribed for her. She also reports engaging in unsafe sexual practices while using these substances, and has been diagnosed and treated for a sexually transmitted disease. She dropped out of school and is estranged from her family. She says that for a long time she has felt depressed and that she uses drugs to “self-medicate my emotions.” She endorses high anxiety and lack of motivation. Ms. L also reports having several criminal charges for theft, assault, and exchanging sex for drugs. She has undergone 3 admissions for detoxification, but promptly resumed using drugs, primarily heroin and oxycodone, immediately after discharge. Ms. L meets DSM-5 criteria for opioid use disorder (OUD).

Ms. L’s case illustrates a disturbing trend in the current opioid epidemic in the United States. Nearly 11.8 million individuals age ≥12 reported misuse of opioids in the last year.1 Adolescents who misuse prescription or illicit opioids are more likely to be involved with the legal system due to truancy, running away from home, physical altercations, prostitution, exchanging sex for drugs, robbery, and gang involvement. Adolescents who use opioids may also struggle with academic decline, drop out of school early, be unable to maintain a job, and have relationship difficulties, especially with family members.

In this article, I describe the scope of OUD among adolescents, including epidemiology, clinical manifestations, screening tools, and treatment approaches.

Scope of the problem

According to the most recent Monitoring the Future survey of more than 42,500 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students, 2.7% of 12th graders reported prescription opioid misuse (reported in the survey as “narcotics other than heroin”) in the past year.2 In addition, 0.4% of 12th graders reported heroin use over the same period.2 Although the prevalence of opioid use among adolescents has been declining over the past 5 years,2 it still represents a serious health crisis.

Part of the issue may relate to easier access to more potent opioids. For example, heroin available today can be >4 times purer than it was in the past. In 2002, the Drug Enforcement Administration reported that the average purity of retail heroin was 38%, with levels up to 71% in some areas of the northeastern United States.3,4 This purer form can be inhaled, which reduces the need for injection and makes it more accessible to younger adolescents.

Between 1997 and 2012, the annual incidence of youth (age 15 to 19) hospitalizations for prescription opioid poisoning increased >170%.5 Approximately 6% to 9% of youth involved in risky opioid use develop OUD 6 to 12 months after starting to use opiods.6-8

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