A Dangerous Trend: The Return of Heroin Addiction, This Time in Teenagers

A Dangerous Trend: The Return of Heroin Addiction, This Time in Teenagers

A Dangerous Trend: The Return of Heroin Addiction, This Time in Teenagers

A Dangerous Trend: The Return of Heroin Addiction, This Time in TeenagersA relatively old opiate is making a comeback, as news outlets from Chicago to Portland, Maine, report increased rates of heroin abuse. While previous use has occurred primarily in communities with low socioeconomic status, current trends show suburban young people, specifically high school to college-aged youths, abusing heroin. Post-graduate young professionals are also using the drug with more frequency than in years past. Young people living in comfortable environments are seemingly using their security as an excuse or a reason to try expensive drugs recreationally and socially. Clearly, financial security does not protect users from the debilitating physical effects of prolonged heroin use, regardless of age or environment.

National data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration shows that the number of teens dying from heroin abuse has skyrocketed. In 1999, 198 people between the ages of 15 and 24 died of a heroin overdose, compared to 510 deaths in 2009, the latest year data was available.

Historically, low-income heroin users have been more likely to experience addiction to other drugs, have conduct disorders, mood disorders and other psychiatric conditions. Young suburban users are somewhat less likely to experience these accompanying disorders, possibly because low socioeconomic status is linked directly to many psychiatric disorders. Despite this, teens, college students and young professionals are no less likely to experience the physical effects of heroin abuse. Studies have found that prescription painkillers serve as a gateway for suburban addicts, who acquire prescription drugs at a young age and abuse them socially, then move to heroin because it is less expensive and easier to hide.

A Constant Need

According to the National Institute of Health, up to 23 percent of people who use heroin will develop dependency. Dependency, or addiction, clinically means that a person needs the regular use of a particular drug—in this case, heroin—in order to function normally. People with drug dependency who abruptly stop taking a drug, or go too long between uses, can experience unpleasant and dangerous withdrawal symptoms.

Physical symptoms of withdrawal include shaking or trembling, sweating, heart palpitations, trouble breathing and gastrointestinal upset. Other symptoms can include depression, anxiety, social withdrawal and insomnia. In some cases, withdrawal causes severe symptoms that can be life threatening, including grand mal seizures, strokes, delirium, heart attacks and hallucinations.

Although many heroin addicts use the drug on a constant basis and not necessarily socially, its high addiction rate means that even social or casual heroin users are at risk for dependency and withdrawal complications. The intense discomfort associated with withdrawal means that even users who recognize that they have a problem may attempt to hide their heroin use and resist treatment.

In addition to the complications of dependency and withdrawal, the use of heroin itself can lead to serious health complications. Because it is often injected, heroin is associated with infection and collapsed veins, as well as HIV and hepatitis infection in social users who share needles. Regardless of whether it is injected or not, heroin can include severely toxic additives that cause permanent organ damage. Chronic use leads to immune suppression, eventually causing pulmonary and cardiac complications, absences, kidney disease and liver failure.

Watch for These Signs

The emotional signs of heroin use can include irritability, anxiety, depression and social withdrawal, all of which are broad and difficult to pin on drug abuse without more signs to interpret. Young addicts may leave behind signs of the drug itself, which can include a powdered or crumbled substance of a white to brown color. Other signs include syringes, pipes, spoons, lighters and tubing used to dissolve the drug before administration. Teens who are using heroin to the point of immune suppression may lose weight and appear haggard or emaciated, and might wear ill-fitting clothes to disguise their declining health.

Heroin abuse is a serious health risk that can lead to permanent damage and even death. If you suspect that your child or another loved one is abusing heroin, take immediate action.

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