TEEN HEALTH Published September24, 2015 By Bernadette Strong

Addiction to Painkillers is More Common in Rural Teens

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Teens who live in ruraly areas appear to be at greater risk of opioid drug abuse than urban teens.
(Photo : Scott Barbour, Getty Images )

Teenagers who live in rural areas and in small cities are more likely to abuse prescription opioid painkillers than are those living in large urban areas, according to a study.

Researchers came to this conclusion after analyzing data from 32,036 teens aged 12 to 17. The data was collected between 2011 and 2012 as part of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

The study found that 6.8% of rural, 6% of small urban, and 5.3% of large urban teenagers had used a prescription painkiller in the previous year. Prescription opioid painkillers are the pain relievers that are similar to morphine and include oxycodone (the active ingredient in OxyContin and Percocet), hydrocodone (the active ingredient in Vicodin), and hydromorphone (the active ingredient in Dilaudid).

When considering the risk factors for abusing opioid painkillers, the researchers found that rural teens were 35% more likely and small urban teens were 21% more likely to abuse these drugs than urban teens. Girls were also found to be more likely to abuse the drugs than boys.

Why are rural teens at greater risk? Among the likely reasons that the study gives for this increased use of morphine-based painkillers is that rural teens are more likely to be treated at emergency rooms, which prescribe opioid painkillers more often, and are more likely to lack information about the dangers of abusing them. They also may have less access to illegal drugs, which reduces the number of other drugs that someone prone to abuse can obtain, the study concluded.

"Some parents don't even know their children are addicted to painkillers because their kids are functioning well in everyday life," said Shannon Monnat, an assistant professor of rural sociology, demography, and sociology at Pennsylvania State University, in a statement. "Opioid abuse is different from drinking, for example, because parents can usually tell if their child is drunk, and it's even different from marijuana use because there are behavioral differences that they may be able to notice if their kid is smoking weed."

The study is published in the Journal of Rural Health.

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