Opioid Addiction Rates Are Growing in Young Adults But Few Are Receiving Treatment Meds

Opioid Addiction Rates Are Growing in Young Adults But Few Are Receiving Treatment MedsEven though the number of American teens and young adults addicted to opioids continues to grow, only one in four of them are receiving the appropriate medications to treat their addiction, according to a new study.

Researchers, who published their report in JAMA Pediatrics, examined millions of UnitedHealthcare claims from 2001 to 2004 to identify how many young patients with an opioid use disorder had received prescriptions for buprenorphine or naltrexone within six months of their diagnosis. Records show that out of the 20, 822 patients found, only 27% (about 5,600) received prescription medications during a time when addiction rates were soaring.

The amount of Americans aged 13 to 25 diagnosed with opioid addiction increased almost six-fold from 2001 to 2014, according to the researchers, and during that time, the national average rate among this age group rose from 0.26 cases to 1.51 cases for every 100,000 people.

Data revealed that the younger the patient, the less likely they were to receive the medication. Only one out of 10 teens aged 16 and 17 years old were given any type of prescription. The study also found that Black, Hispanic and female patents were far less likely than white males to receive the drugs.

“The treatment gap is bad for everybody and even worse for certain subgroups,” said study author Dr. Scott Hadland of Boston Medical Center. “Even though all the youth in our sample had access to high-quality health insurance, they may not have had equal access to high-quality addiction care.”

The majority of those who did get the medicine received buprenorphine, a partial opioid agonist, which helps reduce cravings by targeting the same brain receptors that are affected by addictive opioids such as codeine, oxycodone, heroin, morphine, and Vicodin. Only 11 percent of the patient received a prescription for naltrexone, an opioid antagonist used to relieve cravings for drugs and alcohol.

Buprenorphine and naltrexone for Opioid Addiction Treatment

Drug addiction commonly starts during adolescence, with 7.8% of high school seniors reporting they have used a prescription opioid for nonmedical reasons. One-third of adults in treatment for opioid addiction, began using these before they turned 18, and two-thirds of them began using before age 25, according to the report. Unlike methadone, another medication used to reduce cravings, naltrexone and buprenorphine can be offered to patients in primary care offices.

Buprenorphine, also known by the brand name Suboxone, comes in the form of a pill or film and is taken daily. It can cost about $100 a month, and doctors are required to have special training and a government waiver to prescribe it.

Naltrexone, more commonly known by it’s brand name Vivitrol, is administered as a shot once a month and can cost about $1,000 per month.

Opioid Treatment Obstacles for American Youth

“Young people may be dying because they are not getting the treatment they need,” said Brendan Saloner, an addiction researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who wrote an editorial published alongside the study.

In the editorial, Saloner and his colleagues pointed out several obstacles for teens and young adults.

  • Firstly, there are few pediatricians with the proper training in addiction medicine, and not many have obtained the federal waiver required for prescribing buprenorphine.
  • They point out that many health insurance providers require higher co-pays for buprenorphine.
  • There is a lot of misinformation about medication treatment for substance abuse disorders. Saloner argues that these medications could help these young patients finish school, get a job, and improve their relationships with their families.

The drawback of the study is that researchers did not have data on the severity of addiction, which may been a factor in whether or not the patient received the medication. Also, because the study only focused on individuals with private health insurance, it leaves out information about young Americans who had Medicare or were uninsured.

Nevertheless, the results of this study emphasize the importance of considering medication for adolescents and young adults with opioid addiction, argued Saloner.

America’s Opioid Crisis Continues to Claim Lives

Drug overdose deaths in the United States have reached unprecedented proportions, mainly caused by heroin and prescription opioids like methadone, OxyContin and Vicodin. Opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999, and it’s only getting worse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study also highlights that ER visits and hospitalizations for overdose, admissions to treatment centers, and infections like Hepatitis C related to opioids have dramatically increased since 2000.

Access to Effective Opioid Addiction Treatment

There is no denying that more must be done to provide access to quality addiction treatment to those who need it, regardless of their age. Even so, early intervention is essential for the prevention of severe addiction and possible death. Only one in 12 teens and young adults get the care they need, and minorities are even less likely to receive it.

If you know someone who is struggling with an opioid use disorder, it’s important to seek professional help. At Get Treatment, we can help you find an accredited addiction treatment facility, in which you’ll receive individualized care and support from experienced professionals. For more information about how to get started, dial 855-638-9268.


Erica Loret de Mola


Erica Loret de Mola is a communications major who has been writing about addiction treatment for approximately three years. As content manager and editor in chief of Get Treatment, she strives to provide the most accurate and current information available to our clients.


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