You may have heard marijuana referred to as a “gateway drug,” meaning that it can open doors to other kinds of drug abuse. But did you know that prescription painkillers can be gateway drugs to heroin? Some studies show that people who are addicted to heroin often started out abusing prescription painkillers (opioids), like OxyContin or Vicodin.
Not everyone who abuses a prescription opioid will move on to heroin—but why take the risk?
It might begin innocently enough—you think that taking a family member’s prescription painkiller is safer than abusing an illicit drug like Ecstasy, and you start using your dad’s prescription to get high. But what if you can’t stop? Prescription painkillers act on the same brain areas as heroin, after all, and can be very addictive. Once the pills run out, what do you do? If you’re addicted, you may look for another source, and sometimes that means buying heroin, a dangerous move, considering the potential consequences.
NIDA’s Monitoring the Future survey of teen drug use and attitudes shows that high school students have long seen heroin as one of the most dangerous drugs out there. However, once a person is addicted to prescription painkillers and can’t get them anymore, heroin might not sound like such a bad deal.
Both prescription opioids and heroin are extremely hard to stop once a person is addicted. A person trying to quit abusing opioids or heroin usually goes through severe withdrawal, which can cause restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goosebumps, and involuntary leg movements.
Read more about the dangers of abusing prescription opioids.
Curious what could happen if you abuse someone else’s prescription drugs? “Choose Your Path” with NIDA’s interactive videos. The best part is, if you don’t like your outcome, you can go back and try another path!