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With Drug Use Down, Why Are Overdoses Up?

by Landmark Recovery

May 6, 2019

Yearly surveys are conducted to address the rate at which teens and other age groups are engaging in recreational drug use. In 2018, teen drug use was reported at an all-time low. In fact, teen’s use of alcohol, opioids, and tobacco (excluding the newly popular e-cigarette) is at its lowest since the early 70’s. While this is certainly information worth celebrating, some scary statistics are taking the front page.

Corresponding surveys have revealed that teen overdose rates are at all an all-time high, which raises the question — if overall drug use is down, why are overdoses becoming more frequent?

In 2015, there were 3.7 deaths by overdose for every 100,000 teens. That’s approximately 772 deaths. In 2016, there were 873 teen deaths by overdose. Although there are no hard numbers recorded yet for 2018-19, drug associations have confirmed that rates have steadily increased.


What’s Causing These Fatalities?

A woman sitting on a fence thinking about drug use.


There are a few possibilities. In the early 90’s and 2000’s, drugs were considered “cleaner”, meaning there were little to no synthetic ingredients added. While still extremely harmful and addictive, the effects were predictable and complications were more easily treated. The majority of teen overdoses since 2015 have been due to heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. When tested in labs, even products marketed as “just heroin” had traces of synthetic additives and other non-disclosure chemicals that can be deadly if ingested. Some symptoms of fentanyl ingestion include:

  • Confusion.
  • Depression.
  • Difficulty walking
  • Muscle stiffness.
  • Slowed/altered heart rate.
  • Labored breathing.
  • Weakness.
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, and fainting.
  • Shaking
  • Hallucinations

It’s typically prescribed to patients for extreme pain or injury or after a patient has undergone surgery. It works immediately to eliminate any pain in the body. However, it can also be very addictive. Fentanyl is much more potent than heroin and 100x more potent than morphine.

Only small amounts of fentanyl are needed to experience the same high as a normal dose of heroin, and teens are unknowingly ingesting double or triple the amount leading to fatalities. At the same time, fentanyl requires a much stronger dose of naloxone to reverse the overdose. Most teens don’t have access to naloxone or aren’t even aware they ingested fentanyl.

The effects of fentanyl and other synthetic drugs are also more quickly developed, so complications can reach the point of fatality before there is time to get help.

Prescriptions pills are the second-leading cause of teen overdose, with the majority deemed unintentional. While teens have access to these drugs from peers and community, surveys show most access is from inside the home.

Medical professionals don’t think twice about writing prescriptions for minor or major ailments, as the drug industry is one of the largest money makers for the economy. The issue is, those who take the medications as directed often have leftover pills laying around the house.

Teens who want to experiment with drug use can get access to these medications and not have the proper dosage/usage information, leading to overdose or fatal combinations.


What Steps Can We Take?

It’s not practical to clear your house of all prescription pills. Generally, when taken as directed by a professional, they are safe. Of course, in these cases they are being abused, and sometimes education is not enough.

Teen overdose goes beyond drug abuse and lack of preventative measures, it ties into the national dilemma of opioid and prescription painkillers in general. Even though teen overdose rates are up, their statistics are dramatically lower than those in the age group of 20-30. It seems like the correlation is less to with drug use frequency and more to do the potency and the ingredients in the drugs themselves — leading to higher frequency accidents.

Still, studies have shown that teens who don’t use drugs in their adolescent years are less likely to experiment when they reach adulthood. So how can we prevent overdose rate from continuing to grow? The most important step is informing teens on all aspects of drug use, both natural and synthetic. They will be less likely to use if they are aware of the high fatality rates for the drugs available to them. Second, we need to increase resources to help in the case of an emergency. Higher levels of naloxone should be available at schools and even homes if parents think their children may be using drugs.

If you have prescription pills at home, it’s important to tell your kids exactly what it is and why you use it. Teens are more likely to use drugs out of curiosity than the actual desire to be high, so having all their questions answered may prevent them from sneaking pills.

Attention should be placed on educating teens on reasons not to use drugs, but also how to safely use drugs if they so choose to do so. It may be a controversial piece of advice, as some might think this is promoting drug use. However, with drugs being so incredibly readily available, it’s important teens have all the knowledge they possibly can.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.