Opioid Addiction in Young Adults Recognizing and Treating Drug Use

Young adults are one of the most at-risk groups for opioid misuse, as abuse rates increase significantly after age 18. While people in this age group die from opioids at a lower rate, opioids are a leading cause of death in otherwise healthy young adults. It should also be noted that this is the age where many begin a path toward addiction.

The good news is that addiction in young adults can be treated before it consumes a person’s life. In order for young adults to get opioid addiction treatment, it is crucial to understand the causes and signs of addiction, as well as how it can be stopped.

What are opioids?

Opioids are a class of medications used to treat severe pain. Sometimes, doctors find that the benefits to one’s quality of life outweigh the potential dangers to the patient. Opioids are mainly prescribed in cases of chronic pain, terminal illness, or severe injury. Drugs classified as opioids include:

Prescription drugs:

  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid®)
  • Meperidine (Demerol®)
  • Methadone
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percocet®)
  • Oxymorphone (Opana®)

Street drugs:

  • Heroin
  • Opium
  • Krokodil (desomorphine)

Learn more about opioid addiction on our site.

Young adults and the Opioid Epidemic

Every aspect of a young adult’s life can influence their likelihood of misusing drugs. Studies show that specific factors contributing to opioid misuse include:

  • Poverty/unemployment
  • Stressful circumstances
  • Risk-taking/thrill-seeking behavior
  • Personal/family history of substance abuse
  • Young age
  • History of criminal activity/legal problems
  • Regular contact with high-risk people/environments
  • Problems with past employers, family members, and friends
  • Mental health issues
  • Heavy tobacco use

Curiosity, peer pressure, and the desire to fit in with friends are common reasons that young people want to take opioids. Opioid use often begins as a way of coping with anxiety, anger, depression, or boredom. Being high can be a way of simply avoiding the problems and challenges of adult life.

Who is at risk for opioid abuse?

While there are many factors that contribute to opioid misuse, the three largest risk factors for opioid addiction are:

  • Young age (18-25)
  • Mental health disorders (depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder)
  • History of alcohol or substance abuse

Because these factors can occur simultaneously, people often fall under all three categories.

Why Young Adults Abuse Opioids

Adults ages 18-25 have the highest rate of nonmedical opioid use, and more than half of young adults who misused opioids obtained them from friends or relatives. By comparison, only a quarter of young adults obtained opioids from a prescription.

As young adults grow older, they often have easier access to opioids. Young adult brains are still developing making this section of the population more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including drug use. Many young adults also have fewer responsibilities, which makes it easier to justify misusing opioids.

Many young adults struggle with depression and anxiety, but may not recognize it or feel comfortable talking about it. Friends and family often assume nothing is wrong if their loved ones do not discuss their feelings. Research also suggests that family members’ use of alcohol and drugs plays a strong role in whether a young person uses drugs.

How to spot opioid addiction in young adults

Identifying drug addiction in young adults can be difficult as some of the signs of opioid abuse overlap with typical behaviors of young people, like:

  • Mood swings
  • Odd sleep patterns
  • Withdrawal from family
  • Risky behavior
  • Appetite changes

However, some are more specific to drug users specially:

  • Visiting different doctors, but getting the same prescription
  • Opioid withdrawal symptoms
  • Periods of nervous/excited energy followed by severe fatigue

Confronting young adults about opioid addiction


When you recognize signs of addiction in a loved one, the best thing you can do for them right away is to discuss the issue with them. Sometimes the person with substance abuse struggles to recognize the problem, even when it is clear to others. A direct, heart-to-heart conversation with the right person can help start the road to recovery.

Opioid Addiction Intervention

When this is not enough, you may need to join with others for a formal intervention. The point of an intervention should be to smooth the transition by offering a structured plan for recovery. It should also aim to provide motivation to go through with the plan.

Group members in an intervention should include specific examples of destructive behavior carried out by your loved one. Each member should also explicitly state what actions they plan to take if the person refuses treatment.

One of the challenges in addressing addiction in young adults is that it can often go undiagnosed and untreated. Many young people don’t seek help with their addiction, either because they don’t realize they’re addicted or because they’re afraid of being stigmatized. Early intervention can be pivotal in preventing an overdose. If you are worried a young adult in your life may be using opioids be on the lookout for these signs and symptoms of opioid overdose to know when to call police.

Provide Access to Mental Health Care

Improving access to mental health care for young people is crucial to address both opioid addiction and mental illnesses. It is crucial for young adults to have a supportive environment with access to addiction resources and encourages them to seek help.

Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Medication assisted-treatment (MAT) involves the use of medications that help to reduce cravings for opioids and make sobriety easier. These medications include methadone, naltrexone (Vivitrol®), buprenorphine, or Suboxone®.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

In 2021, roughly 4 million young adults (13.5%) had co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders. In such cases, mental illness and substance abuse aggravate one another. A dual diagnosis program takes both factors into account so that the patient can stay in recovery.

Behavioral Therapy Options

There are several evidence-based approaches that fall under the category of behavioral therapy. Addiction therapists help untangle what’s behind the addiction and guide them toward a better way of thinking. Successful therapy helps to heal past trauma, while also helping to develop a mindset that will aid in continued sobriety.

After Opioid Addiction Treatment

It is important to provide support for young people in their recovery, including family therapy, peer support, and career support. Many experts believe that addiction results from the user’s inability to make meaningful connections with others. Continued love and support once treatment has ended helps them to rebuild their lives and to stay in recovery.

Young Adult Opioid Rehab Near Me

The Hope House is one of the best drug rehab centers in Arizona and offers a wide range of therapies to help successfully treat opioid addiction in young adults. Our experienced masters-level staff is trained to use all the tools at their disposal to help conquer substance abuse and mental illness. Contact our addiction specialists today to figure out a treatment plan that is personalized to fit your specific needs.

If treatment is difficult to afford, use SAMHSA’s free treatment locator, here.