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The Opioid Addiction Crisis

Posted 5/4/2017 by UHBlog

If your son or daughter is hooked on drugs, talk to us about diagnosing and treating teens who are using opiates, opioids and other drugs. We can help.

The Opioid Addiction Crisis

Almost 800 people in Cuyahoga County will die this year from a drug overdose, the county medical examiner’s office projects. Many of them are likely to be teenagers.

A report from the Office of the Cuyahoga County Executive says as many as 80,000 people in the county may be misusing or abusing prescription opiates and opioids. As many as 20,000 of them may switch over to heroin and fentanyl use. Only about 1,000 users sought treatment in 2015, the county reported last summer.

Many parents of addicted teens are in denial, says psychologist Luis Felipe Amunategui, PhD.

“Drug abuse is such a serious problem that many parents can’t imagine that their own children are afflicted like that,” Dr. Amunategui says. “It really takes a lot of hard evidence for a parent to accept it. If there is any other way to explain a child’s behavior, many parents will go for the alternative explanation. The social stigma attached to drug abuse definitely adds to the problem of acceptance.”

Generally, opiate drugs refer to substances that originate from the opium poppy plant. They include heroin, opium, morphine and codeine, which produce pain-reducing and euphoric effects on users. Opioids have similar effects but are synthetic drugs. They include oxycodone, fentanyl, methadone, Percocet and other pain relievers that are usually dispensed through a prescription.

According to the county executive, the recent opiate and opioid epidemic resulted from the over-prescribing of pain medication in the 1990s and 2000s, which provided a ready-made client base for Mexican drug cartels. The cartels ramped up their heroin production fivefold in 2006 and dumped cheap heroin into American cities. Those same cartels are now producing fentanyl, which is much cheaper and more potent than heroin.

“Think of it as a perfect storm,” Dr. Amunategui says. “A lot of people became dependent upon narcotics like oxycodone, then switched to heroin because it was cheaper and more easily available.”

Overdose deaths often result from the unpredictability of the strength of a dose of substances like heroin, cocaine and fentanyl.

Along with easy access to illegal drugs, teens can access prescription narcotics by simply taking them from a household medicine cabinet, Dr. Amunategui warns.

In addition to keeping an eye on household medications, he says attentive parents will usually be able to detect some signals that their teens are using opiates or opioids.

“It is very difficult for a child to conceal their addiction once it gets a hold of them,” he says. “Between the need to procure the drug, use it and hide the use, there are things that parents should be able to pick up on.”

Some of those may include:

  • An abrupt change in a teen’s behavior, including irritability, moodiness or confusion
  • Recurrent sickness that seems like the flu, possibly including nausea, cramping and diarrhea
  • Constant itching and scratching of the skin, flushness or a cold feel to the skin
  • New or suspicious characters showing up in a teen’s social life

If you suspect that your teen may be involved with narcotics, you should address it with him or her, Dr. Amunategui says. The problem is too serious to ignore.

“It only takes so many exposures to a narcotic before you have a fairly well-established dependency,” he says. “Addiction is harmful to the addict, and eventually his or her behaviors are likely to strain or destroy their family and other relationships. The users may start to associate with questionable characters. It becomes a huge social problem.”

Treatment is available for narcotics addicts, and help is available for parents of combative and non-cooperative teens who resist assistance. One first step could be a consultation with your family doctor.

Despite the heightened awareness of the local and national opioid/opiate epidemic in the past couple years, the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office expects another significant increase in overdose deaths in the county this year. In 2015, 370 Cuyahoga County deaths were attributed to overdoses. That number is estimated at 608 for 2016, and, calculated on data from the first quarter of this year, 2017 overdose deaths are projected at 760.

Luis Felipe Amunategui, PhD, is a child and adolescent psychologist and associate program director, Child Psychiatry at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Amunategui or any other doctor online.

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