Evidence-Based Reviews

Opioid use disorder in adolescents: An overview

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Harm-reduction strategies. Although the primary goal of treatment for adolescents with OUD is to achieve and maintain abstinence from opioid use, implicit and explicit goals can be set. Short-term implicit goals may include harm-reduction strategies that emphasize decreasing the duration, frequency, and amount of substance use and limiting the chances of adverse effects, while the long-term explicit goal should be abstinence from opioid use.

Naloxone nasal spray is used as a harm-reduction strategy. It is an FDA-approved formulation that can reverse the effects of unintentional opioid overdoses and potentially prevent death from respiratory depression.37 Other harm-reduction strategies include needle exchange programs, which provide sterile needles to individuals who inject drugs in an effort to prevent or reduce the transmission of human immunodeficiency virus and other bloodborne viruses that can be spread via shared injection equipment. Fentanyl testing strips allow opioid users to test for the presence fentanyl and fentanyl analogs in the unregulated “street” opioid supply.

Pharmacologic interventions. Because there is limited empirical evidence on the efficacy of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for adolescents with OUD, clinicians need to rely on evidence from research and experience with adults. Unfortunately, MAT is offered to adolescents considerably less often than it is to adults. Feder et al38 reported that only 2.4% of adolescents received MAT for heroin use and only 0.4% of adolescents received MAT for prescription opioid use, compared with 26.3% and 12% of adults, respectively.

Detoxification. Medications available for detoxification from opioids include opiates (such as methadone or buprenorphine) and clonidine (a central sympathomimetic). If the patient has used heroin for a short period (<1 year) and has no history of detoxification, consider a detoxification strategy with a longer-term taper (90 to 180 days) to allow for stabilization.

Maintenance treatment. Consider maintenance treatment for adolescents with a history of long-term opioid use and at least 2 prior short-term detoxification attempts or nonpharmacotherapy-based treatment within 12 months. Be sure to receive consent from a legal guardian and the patient. Maintenance treatment is usually recommended to continue for 1 to 6 years. Maintenance programs with longer durations have shown higher rates of abstinence, improved engagement, and retention in treatment.39

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