Opioid Resource Center

Opioid Resource Center

July 22, 2019
1 min read

Teens more likely to jump to heroin after misusing prescription opioids

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Photo of Lorraine Kelley-Quon
Lorraine Kelley-Quon

Teenagers who reported nonmedical prescription opioid use during high school were significantly more likely to later use heroin, according to findings from a prospective cohort study published in JAMA Pediatrics.

“The opioid epidemic has overwhelmed many communities in the United States, and teenagers are a particularly vulnerable group who also are at risk,” lead author Lorraine Kelley-Quon, MD, MSHS, assistant professor in the division of pediatric surgery at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, told Infectious Diseases in Children. “Prescription opioids are pharmacologically similar to heroin, making the association notable and unique.”

Kelley-Quon and colleagues conducted a longitudinal cohort survey in eight urban and two suburban Los Angeles high schools that were chosen because of their diverse demographic characteristics. The researchers followed 3,298 adolescents from ninth grade in 2013 through 12th grade in 2017. The adolescents, who had never used heroin at baseline, participated in eight waves of semiannual surveys — each wave representing a semester in high school — to assess nonmedical prescription opioid use, heroin use and social and environmental factors.

Photo of oxycodone pills and pill bottles  
Current nonmedical prescription opioid use has a 13.1% estimated cumulative probability of subsequent heroin use initiation.
Source: Adobe Stock

The cohort included 1,775 teen girls (53.9%), 1,563 (48.3%) Hispanic students, 548 (17%) Asian students, 155 (4.8%) African American students, 529 (16.4%) non-Hispanic white students and 220 (6.8%) multiracial students.

According to the researchers, the estimated cumulative probability of subsequently using heroin by the end of 42-month follow up period among teens who reported no, prior and current nonmedical prescription opioid use was 1.7%, 10.7% and 13.1%, respectively.

“Even when controlling for other drug use, we were impressed by the strength of the association between nonmedical opioid use and later heroin use,” Kelley-Quon said.

However, the researchers noted that further research is needed to determine whether the association is causal. – by Joe Gramigna

Disclosures: Kelley-Quon reports funding from the NIH. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.