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With opioid overdoses being so frequent across the country (115 Americans die every day, according to the CDC) and in the news lately, parents may be concerned if their child receives an opioid prescription. Here’s some tips on how to ensure that your child gets the pain relief they need while avoiding opioid misuse and addiction.

First, what is an opioid?

There are several opioids that are on the market now. The most common are Hydrocodone (Zohydro); Hydrocodone with Acetaminophen (Vicodin); Oxycodone (Oxycontin, Roxicodone); Oxycodone + Acetaminophen (Percocet); Codeine, Morphine, Fentanyl, and Tylenol with codeine.

These are distinct from opiates; opiates are drugs like morphine and heroin that are derived from the poppy plant, whereas opioids are synthetic, but they create a similar high. This is why 4 out of 5 heroin users say that their addiction began when they started abusing prescription drugs.

Why are opioids so addictive?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Opioids activate several brain systems, including one that motivates a person to take more of the drug. At the same time, opioids cause changes in another part of the brain that limits a person’s ability to stop taking them. When these two brain processes work in combination, the effect is like hitting the accelerator in a car—without having any brakes. A person addicted to opioids feels an intense urge to take the drug again, and also has a hard time resisting that urge.”

On top of that, teens have a brain that is not fully developed. The part of the brain that assesses risk isn’t fully finished developing until about the mid-twenties, which means that teens are more susceptible to trying substances.

What should you ask your child’s doctor?

The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids recommends asking these questions if your child’s doctor prescribes an opioid:

1) “Is a prescription opioid necessary to treat my child’s pain? Might an over the counter (OTC) pain reliever such as acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol), in combination with a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) be just as effective? For chronic pain, can we explore alternative treatments such as physical therapy, acupuncture, biofeedback or massage?”

2) “How many pills are being prescribed, and over how long a period?  Is it necessary to prescribe this quantity of pills?”

3) “What are the risks of misuse?  (The prescriber should be able to answer this question for the specific drug being prescribed.)”

4) “Should my child be screened to determine his/her risk of substance use disorder (SUD) before this medication is prescribed?  If not, why not? (Common risk factors include co-occurring mental health disorders such as depression or ADHD, as well as a family history of addiction or a recent trauma such as a death in the family or a divorce.)”

What other steps can you take if an opioid is prescribed?

First and foremost, be sure and talk to your kids about the dangers of taking a medication in any way other than the way it’s prescribed. Medication, especially opioids, should never be taken at a higher dose or more frequently than prescribed.

As with any medication, especially ones that have a high risk of being misused, consider securing it behind a lock. If that’s not possible, keep track of how much medication you have.

Once your child is feeling better, dispose of any leftover medication right away. There are several ways to properly dispose of leftover medication, such as attending a DEA Takeback event that happens twice a year, dropping the medication in a secure drop box at a participating law enforcement agency or pharmacy, using a drug deactivation pouch, or mailing in your medication to an agency that will incinerate it for you.

Opioid addiction can be a scary thought, but following these steps will go a long way to keeping your family safe.