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Real Talk: Talking to teens about drugs and Narcan

A professional's perspective

real talk, parents of teens, dealing with drugs and narcan

Get the other perspective. See how a mom of teens answers the same question.

Adolescence is a wonderful time of life. It’s a period filled with new independent adventures, the formation of identity, and the joys and heartbreaks of first-time events. Adolescence is a time to experience the excitement of first loves and of game-winning home runs, but it’s also the time of loss—the loss of those same first loves, of emerging disappointments, the loss of some innocent freedoms, and potential strikeouts.  Additionally, it’s a time of secrecy—especially from parents. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a good communicative relationship with your adolescent, if you think your teen isn’t using, or at least experimenting with some drugs, you probably need to wake up. According to most studies, the majority of adolescents have tried addictive substances.  Drugs are easy to come by, with half of high school students saying they know a classmate who sells drugs.  And if this is what they admitted to researchers, just imagine how many more kids have access to any number of substances—and have potentially tried one of them without your knowledge?


In 2018 alcohol remains the most common substance abused among adolescents, just as it is among adults. Cannabis comes next, and then prescription drugs. The good news for most parents of adolescents is that this “experimenting” is just that: brief curiosity or a peer-induced event. However, not all substances of adolescent experimentation are as potentially benign as alcohol or cannabis. Prescription opioids are becoming all too common among adolescents. Every other day we read another news story about the opioid epidemic gripping our country. More people than ever are dying from opioid overdoses. Some opioids, such as heroin, are illegal. However, many opioids are legal and are prescribed by health care providers to treat pain. These include oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine, and morphine, among others. Use of these prescription drugs for short durations, as prescribed by a doctor, is generally safe. However, use of illegal opioids and misuse of prescription opioids can lead to addiction—and even overdose or death. In recent years, it is estimated that about 5 million people in the United States have tried opioids as recreational drugs—and an increasing number of these users are adolescents. There are now more deaths each year from prescription opioids than from heroin and cocaine combined.

Adolescence is a critical at-risk period for substance use!

While estimates can vary, research suggests that over 1 million adolescents ages 12-17 have reported misusing opioids over the past year. This percentage is twice as high among older adolescents and young adults ages 18-25. The vast majority of this misuse is due to prescription opioids, not heroin. 

Some teens get exposed to opioids and abuse them as recreational drugs. One common way that teens initially try opioids is by finding them in their own home medicine chest. If you ask people who misuse opioids where they got the opioids, a high proportion say they got it from a relative, a friend, or a medicine cabinet in the house. If family members have taken any opioid medications in the past, they should make sure they have properly disposed of any remaining pills so that children and teens cannot access them. If they are currently taking these medications, they should keep them in a locked cabinet.

Abusing prescription opioid pain relievers is a major problem among young people, and a new study shows users are combining those drugs with other substances. Opioids are dangerous when taken other than as prescribed and combining them with other drugs only compounds the risks of overdose.

Death from overdose is the most serious consequence of prescription-drug misuse. From 1999 to 2017, almost 218,000 people died in the United States from overdoses related to prescription opioids. Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids were five times higher in 2017 than in 1999. And while the number of deaths from drug overdose remains quite low overall, the rate of overdose deaths among adolescents is increasing. In 2018, approximately 5,000 young people ages 15-24 died from a drug-related overdose; over half of these were attributable to opioids

Individuals at increased risk of opioid misuse include those with acute and chronic pain, physical health problems, histories of mental illness (such as depression) and other substance use or abuse. Youth who have witnessed a family member overdose or who have many friends that misuse prescription drugs also are at increased risk.

Given the potentially lethal result of opioid abuse by your adolescent it is important to try to understand as much as you can about what’s going on in your adolescent’s life regarding drug use. When discussing drugs and alcohol with your adolescent, trying just to scare them is usually a tactic that will immediately turn them off from listening to you. If you believe he or she is using opioids, speak intelligently about the risks. Again, DON’T JUST TRY TO SCARE THEM. When discussing opioids as opposed to other substances—given the potential lethal effects—they should be made to be aware of the dangerous outcomes of opioid use when compared to other substances.  This becomes somewhat more complicated if they have been prescribed opioids to control pain, or if someone else in the family is a regularly prescribed user. Keep in mind that you are your kids’ significant model!

Try to find out why your adolescent is using drugs and avoid accusations. Above all listen to your adolescent!

If you even suspect that your adolescent or their friends are potentially using opioids you should educate them about Naloxone, sold under the name Narcan, and how this lifesaving drug can reverse the effects of opioids in the event of an overdose—potentially saving a loved one’s life.

Naloxone can quickly restore normal breathing and save the life of a person who is overdosing on opioids. 
In 2017, close to 50,00 people died from an overdose on opioid drugs, including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and fentanyl. Naloxone is a safe medication that is widely used by emergency medical personnel and other first responders to prevent opioid overdose deaths. Unfortunately, by the time a person having an overdose is reached, it is often too late. A variety of drugs and drug combinations carry the risk of fatal overdose. Emergency protocol for any suspected overdose includes calling 911.

An overdose can happen when the amount ingested causes suppressed breathing in a way that oxygen can’t reach vital organs, and the body begins to shut down. It’s important to note that an overdose can occur anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 full hours after drug use. Signs of an overdose include:

  • Face is clammy to touch and has lost color
  • Blue lips and fingertips
  • Non-responsive to his or her name, or a firm sternum rub using the knuckles
  • Slow or erratic breathing, or no breathing at all
  • Deep snoring or a gurgling sound (i.e. what would be described as a “death rattle”)
  • Heartbeat is slow or has stopped

Tell any potential user that it is important even after the administration of Naloxone to call emergency responders right away.
They may try to hide the event thinking everything in now okay. But Naloxone is only active in the body for 30 to 90 minutes and its effects could wear off before those of the opioids, causing the user to stop breathing again.

Either you can get your adolescents Narcan or tell them where they can purchase it. 
Pharmacies that sign up to dispense naloxone are required to sell the medication to anyone (of any age) that requests it. A doctor's prescription is not required, and recipients do not need to provide a photo ID. Pharmacies that dispense naloxone are protected from liability under New York State law. Naloxone is now available in more than 2,000 pharmacies throughout New York State. Individuals who are themselves at risk for an overdose (or their family members or friends) may acquire naloxone in these pharmacies without bringing in a prescription. (Narcan Nasal Spray is the most recent FDA-approved naloxone product, and it is very easy to use.) In addition to some independent drugstores, Walgreen’s, CVS, Rite Aid, Target and Wal-Mart are providing naloxone in many states through their pharmacies without requiring a prescription.

We would all be happier if none of our children experimented with drugs or alcohol—but unfortunately the vast majority do. With our involvement in their lives we can all try to make this often harmless adolescent curiosity a phase that passes quickly rather than something that causes the trauma of overdose—or worse.


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