Teens who take prescription opioid painkillers to get high could be taking a step toward heroin use, researchers say.
"Prescription opioids and heroin activate the brain's pleasure circuit in similar ways," said senior author Adam Leventhal. He's director of the Institute for Addiction Science at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.
"Teens who enjoy the 'high' from prescription opioids could be more inclined to seek out other drugs that produce euphoria, including heroin," he explained in a university news release.
The new study included nearly 3,300 students at 10 Los Angeles-area high schools who were followed from freshman year to senior year.
Nearly 600 students reported using prescription opioids -- such as OxyContin and Vicodin -- to get high during the first 3.5 years of high school.
The researchers found that about 13% of current prescription opioid users and nearly 11% of previous prescription opioid users went on to use heroin by the end of high school.
Only 1.7% of teens who did not use prescription opioids to get high had tried heroin by the end of high school, according to the study. The results were published July 8 in JAMA Pediatrics.
Teens are sometimes overlooked in the opioid epidemic discussion, added first author Dr. Lorraine Kelley-Quon.
"The association between nonmedical opioid use and later heroin use in youth is concerning and warrants further research and health policy interventions," said Kelley-Quon, an assistant professor of surgery and preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine.
The association between prescription opioids and heroin use was stronger than the associations between marijuana, alcohol, and methamphetamine use and later heroin use, the findings showed.
"While we can't definitively conclude that there is a cause-and-effect relation, there may be something unique about opioid drugs that makes youths vulnerable to trying heroin," Leventhal said. "The results do not appear to be driven by the tendency of some teens to act out, rebel, or experiment with many types of drugs."
Nine percent of the 47,600 opioid overdose deaths in the United States in 2017 occurred in people younger than 25, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In addition to overdose, heroin use can lead to addiction, hepatitis C, HIV and other infections.
The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more about heroin.