Opioids: Facts Parents Need to Know
More FAQs about Opioids

This is Archived Content. This content is available for historical purposes only. It may not reflect the current state of science or language from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Find current research and publications at nida.nih.gov.

How can I prevent my child from misusing opioids?

Asian father and daughter

There is no quick or simple solution to prevent teens from misusing opioids. However, it can be done. Research shows that parents have a big influence on their teens. So, talk openly about the effects of opioids and other drugs with your children and stay actively engaged in their lives.

To help you get started, the next section provides some key points about opioids that you can share with your kids to help them make the best decisions to avoid opioid misuse. These key points address the types of questions and comments that we receive daily from our NIDA for Teens website and Drugs and Health Blog. Following that section, all the facts, questions, and listed resources will help equip you with even more information to talk about with your teen.

Can my teen take someone else’s prescription opioids if he or she is injured?

No. It is dangerous to give your child someone else’s medication, even if he or she is in real pain. You should never give your children opioids that were not prescribed for them. Doctors prescribe opioids specifically based on a person’s physical and medical history, such as weight, other medical conditions, or how opioids interact with other medicines your child might be taking. Without talking to a doctor, you won’t know how the opioids will affect your child or what dose should be safely given. If your child is prescribed opioids, make sure you monitor their use carefully.

I’ve heard of something called fentanyl. What is that?

Fentanyl is another type of opioid that is similar to morphine. It is 50 times stronger than heroin. As a prescription, it’s used to treat severe pain and is also used in surgeries. But fentanyl is also made and used illegally. It is sometimes added to heroin or to other drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine, causing potent and unpredictable drug combinations that can lead to fatal overdose.

How can I tell if my child has been misusing opioids?

Changes in your child’s behavior—such as not brushing their hair or teeth, skipping showers, changes in mood, and challenging relationships with friends and family—can be signs that your child is misusing opioids or other drugs. It’s also important to look out for changes in grades, skipping classes or missing school, loss of interest in activities or friends that used to bring enjoyment, changes in sleeping and eating habits, and getting in trouble at school or with law enforcement. These changes could all be related to drug use—or may indicate other problems.

Can my child use opioids if she is pregnant?

Even when taken as prescribed, opioid use during pregnancy may increase the risk of miscarriage or low birth weight. It can also cause neonatal abstinence syndrome, a medical condition where the baby is born dependent on opioids and has withdrawal symptoms after being born.

If a pregnant woman tries to stop taking opioids without medical help, she can put the baby at risk. It is important for pregnant women to tell their doctor about all the medications and other drugs they are taking, or planning to take, so that the baby has a greater chance of being born healthy. If a pregnant woman is misusing opioids, there are treatments that can help her.

What is dependence and how is it different from addiction?

Many people who take prescription opioids for pain become dependent, but that is not the same as being addicted. Dependence occurs when your body has gotten used to the drug for pain, but then you feel really sick when you stop taking the drug. If your child is prescribed opioids, you should talk with his or her doctor about how to safely stop using them.

Addiction means a person continues to seek and take the drug despite negative consequences. It is possible to become dependent on opioids without being addicted, but dependence can lead to addiction in some cases.

Can opioid addiction be treated?

Quitting opioids can be hard, but it is possible. You can work with your child’s doctor to develop customized treatment plans that can include medications and therapy. There are three FDA-approved medicines to treat opioid addiction and reduce cravings, offering options to meet individual needs. Buprenorphine and methadone are medicines that bind to the same receptors in the brain as opioids, called opioid agonists or partial agonists. Naltrexone is another medication that treats opioid addiction, but it is called an antagonist, preventing opioids from having an effect on the brain. Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration recently approved a medicine called lofexidine to help make withdrawal symptoms easier for people who are trying to stop using opioids.

While many treatment centers do not offer medication, the National Academy of Sciences recently issued a scientific report stating that opioid agonists or partial agonists are especially effective, save lives, and have better long-term outcomes than other medications or no medications at all A combination of medication with behavioral therapy can reinforce treatment goals, rebuild relationships with friends and family, and build healthy life skills.

Can you overdose on opioids?

Yes. Opioid overdose can cause slowed breathing, which can cause hypoxia—too little oxygen reaching the brain. Hypoxia can have psychological and neurological effects, including coma, permanent brain damage, or death.

Young male looking out of the window face in crook of arm.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms from opioids can begin as early as a few hours after the drug was last taken and can include:

  • muscle and bone pain
  • sleep problems
  • diarrhea and vomiting
  • cold flashes with goose bumps
  • uncontrollable leg movements
  • severe cravings for the drug

Some people confuse withdrawal pain as the actual pain they started taking the drug for. Only a doctor can help evaluate the best approach to reducing the pain or discomfort during withdrawal.

Can you stop an opioid overdose as it is happening?

Yes, with quick action. If you think your child has overdosed on opioids, the most important thing to do is call 911. When medical personnel arrive, they will likely administer naloxone—an FDA-approved medicine that can block the effects of opioids and rapidly reverse an overdose. Naloxone is available as an injectable liquid solution, an auto-injector, and an FDA-approved nasal spray.

Some states require doctors to write a prescription for naloxone, while others have passed laws that allow pharmacies to sell it without a personal prescription. This allows friends, family, and people in the community to keep naloxone on hand to save someone who is overdosing.

However, it is important to remember that naloxone doesn’t take the place of medical care. It only works to reverse an opioid overdose in the body for 30 to 90 minutes, so it is possible for a person to still experience the effects of an overdose after naloxone wears off. Also, some opioids are stronger and might require multiple doses. Therefore, it is critical to call 911 so the patient can receive immediate attention.

People given naloxone should be observed constantly until emergency care arrives and they should be monitored for another two hours after the last naloxone dose is given to make sure breathing does not slow or stop. An overdose reversal is a key time for patients with opioid addiction to be connected with treatment for their addiction.

What is being done to address the opioid overdose crisis?

Federal, state, and local governments, as well as advocacy organizations, researchers, and health professionals are working together to tackle this public health crisis from every angle.

Such strategies include:

  • improving access to treatment and recovery services
  • promoting the use of naloxone by first responders and bystanders
  • strengthening our understanding of the crisis through better public health monitoring
  • developing safe and effective medications and strategies for pain management
  • improving medications to treat people who are addicted to opioids
  • improving prevention strategies

Researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are exploring better ways to prevent and treat opioid misuse. They are looking at how opioids work on brain pathways so they can develop safer opioid medications that do not have the risk of addiction. Read about the NIH HEALSM (Helping to End Addiction Long-Term) Initiative.

Scientists are also developing better ways to deliver medications to the body. This includes long-lasting and implantable formulations that can deliver medication to treat opioid addiction for weeks or months, instead of having to take a pill daily or every other day.