How A Family Member's Opioid Use Affects Teens

By Kelly Burch 03/04/19

A new study examined why teens with family members who chronically use prescription opioids are at higher risk of long-term opioid use. 

a teen's family member deciding which prescription opioid to use

Having a family member who chronically uses opioids significantly increases the chance that a teen who is prescribed opioids will develop long-term use, according to a new study. 

The study, published in JAMA Surgery, looked at insurance records of nearly 350,000 people aged 13 to 21 who had never been prescribed opioids before, but who were given the painkillers after surgery or dental procedures. By looking at other people on the family insurance plan, researchers were able to understand whether someone else in the family was using opioids chronically. 

They found that 2.4% of young people prescribed opioids for the first time developed long-term use. However, if a family member was using opioids chronically, that percentage increased to 4.1%. 

“The findings suggest that long-term opioid use among family members is associated with persistent opioid use among opioid-naive adolescents and young adults undergoing surgery and should be screened for in the preoperative period,” study authors wrote. 

Lead study author Dr. Calista Harbaugh said that the results show that doctors need to be proactive about talking to patients about opioid use in their families. 

"We are trying to better understand what impacts a young adult's risk of chronic opioid use after the first time they are prescribed an opioid," she told Science Daily. "Surgeons and providers should heighten efforts to prevent opioid dependence among patients with any potential risk factors.”

The research found a connection—but researchers couldn’t explain why the risk was higher. They explained that it could be due to family culture, genetic factors, or possibly even other family members using the teen’s prescription. 

Study author Jennifer Waljee said the findings highlight the need for even more caution around prescribing practices for young adults. 

"We know from previous research that adolescents and young adults undergoing dental and other common surgical procedures are at risk of persistent opioid use after their first opioid prescription,” she said. "Our study suggests a potential relationship between this risk among youth and the presence of opioid use among family members and may be an important consideration when screening for individuals at risk for prolonged postoperative opioid use.”

For teens who have someone in their family already using opioids chronically, doctors should be proactive about trying to prevent long-term use of opioids, study authors wrote. 

“Physicians should screen young patients for long-term opioid use in their families and implement heightened efforts to prevent opioid dependence among patients with this important risk factor,” they said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.