How Opioids Work and What They do to Teenagers

How opioids effect teenagers
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We used this space to educate and inform community leaders, parents, and teenagers about how drugs affect teenage bodies. We’ve done the same for alcohol, as well. Now we want to break out and specifically discuss the greatest drug threat in America today: Opioids.

You’ve most likely heard about opioids in the news, and sadly many of you probably know someone who has dealt with the devastating effects in America’s ongoing battle against opioid addiction and abuse.

In 2012, there were 467,000 people in the United States addicted to heroin, a powerful street opioid, yet in the same year, more than 2 million Americans were abusing opioid painkillers.[1]

This tracks with the general trend in the United States, writ large, as 2017 saw a 10% increase in overall drug overdose deaths, as more than 70,000 Americans died in from a drug-related overdose that year.[2]

Unfortunately, the trend line for opioid use among teenagers — as well as the mortality rate — is only getting worse. In a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers found, “Over 18 years, nearly 9,000 children and adolescents died from opioid poisonings, and the mortality rate increased nearly 3-fold.”[3]

Understanding Why Teens Use Drugs

Before we dive into what happens to teenagers when they use opioids, we first must understand why teens might reach for drugs in the first place.

Our teenage years are challenging in many ways, both physically and mentally. The rapid ascent toward adulthood is in constant combat with the whims of youth, which often leads to poor decision making.

This internal battle often leads to teenagers looking for an escape from the pressures they face. Sometimes this escape is entirely innocent, like a book or a movie. Other times, however, it can lead to drug use.

As for why this happens, we can thank biology for the rate at which our brains develop. According to the Partnership for Drug Free Kids, “The part of the brain that controls reasoning and impulses — known as the prefrontal cortex — is near the front of the brain and, therefore, develops last. This part of the brain does not fully mature until the age of 25.”[4]

Parents and mentors need to understand why teenagers are susceptible to falling into drug use. Staying active in their lives by asking questions about their thoughts and feelings keeps teenagers engaged and less likely to seek refuge in illicit drugs, while simultaneously keeping parents and mentors involved, as well.

Why are Opioids so Addictive?

The science behind opioids —prescription painkillers, heroin, fentanyl — is a large reason why we’re facing an epidemic of abuse and addiction in America. These drugs are powerful, and they impact the brain in ways it wants us to replicate, which necessitates an increased dosage.

Opioids attach to pain receptors on nerve cells in your brain and your body, essentially turning them off for a period of time. This is why they were first invented, as a way of managing severe pain from injury or a medical procedure.

“Opioids can make your brain and body believe the drug is necessary for survival,” according to the American Association of Anesthesiologists. “As you learn to tolerate the dose you’ve been prescribed, you may find that you need even more medication to relieve the pain — sometimes resulting in addiction.”[5]

When you no longer trip those impulses in the brain, the brain, and the body take over and push you back toward the opioid, leading to addiction.

The Impact of Opioid Addiction on Teenagers

Once addicted, overuse of opioids — legal or illicit — begin to break our bodies down. Infections in the heart lining can occur, while respiratory depression can lead to slowed breathing, which is potentially fatal.[6]

Abusing opiates can also weaken your immune system, leading to a greater chance of falling ill to viruses your body would otherwise be able to ward off.[7]

Talk to Your Teenagers and Look Out for Signs of Drug use

Parents and mentors of teenagers need to understand the signs of opioid and other drug use as well as how prevalent their use may be within the community writ large. Because of the risk factors that go along with drug use, any type of drug can be harmful to the body, whether it is misuse of prescribed medications or illicit substances.

Pride Surveys developed its Risk and Protective Factor (RPF) student perception survey, a hybrid version of the Communities That Care (CTC) Youth Survey and the Pride Questionnaire for Grades 6 to 12 to measure the risk factors that show the strongest correlation to drug use. It contains the Core Measures required by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for their Drug-Free Communities Grant that went into effect February 2013 and asks about incidences of alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use plus perceptions of availability and disapproval of use from parents and friends.

The benefit of choosing a survey company is that we take the guesswork out of the surveying process to ask the difficult questions. For more than thirty years, Pride Surveys has been helping schools collect data on teen substance abuse perceptions and drug use trends in their communities through scalable survey products. We offer multiple drug-free community survey options as well as student risk perception surveys designed to help assess teen substance abuse and risk, including our student surveys for grades 6-12, and our supplemental surveys like the Drug-Free Community Survey Supplement.

Browse the different types of scalable student surveys we offer and find out why Pride Surveys is the best choice to help you survey your school. Questions? Give us a call at 800-279-6361 or contact us here.


[1] “The Effects of Opiates on Your Body.” Retrieved on 18 March 2019 at

[2] “New Data Show Growing Complexity of Drug Overdose Deaths in America.” Retrieved on 19 March 2019 at

[3] “US National Trends in Pediatric Deaths from Prescription and Illicit Opioids, 1999-2016.” Retrieved 18 March 2019 at

[4] “Brain Development, Teen Behavior and Preventing Drug Use.” Retrieved on 18 March 2019 at

[5] “Opioid Treatment: What Are Opioids?” Retrieved on 18 March 2019 at

[6] “The Effects of Opiates on Your Body.” Retrieved on 19 March 2019 at

[7] Ibid.

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