Helping Parents Identify Signs of IV Drug Use in Teens

teenager in bedroom

It’s painful to imagine that your child is abusing drugs. And while you might be consumed with worry in the moment, finding intravenous-drug paraphernalia in your teen’s room may actually turn out to be lifesaving.

Although heroin is the most popular drug injected directly into a vein, prescription opioids (OxyContin), cocaine, and methamphetamine (meth), and fentanyl are also taken intravenously. Each drug is life threatening, particularly fentanyl.

Finding drug paraphernalia that’s typically delivered via intravenous means can be a pretty jarring event. However, a critical part of combatting your teen’s drug use is to become knowledgeable of the items used for injection.

The Paraphernalia of IV Drug Use

If you find any of the following items in your teen’s possessions, it is essential to intervene quickly.

Bent & Discolored Spoons: When it comes to shooting (injecting) drugs, the user must first liquefy a powder form of the drug to prepare for injection. To liquefy the drug, users typically mix the drug with water and heat the mixture. Spoons are commonly used for this process. Typically, a user bends a spoon to easily hold over a lighter and lights the bottom until the drug dissolves. Through the heating (cooking) process, the spoon will show black tinges on the bottom from burns. If you find a bent or blackened spoon, it’s important to quickly confront your child.

Bottle Caps & Cut Aluminum Cans: Alternatives to spoons, bottle caps (both plastic and metal) and aluminum cans can both function as devices for cooking. Users typically cut aluminum cans in half and use the concaved bottom of the can as a cooking platform. If you find these items with brown residue or burn marks, it may indicate intravenous drug use.

Tuft of Cotton, Q-Tips & Cigarette Filters: Before injection, it must first be filtered to remove insoluble materials that may be mixed with the drug. Not doing so may clog the needle, and worse, the veins. Small tufts and Q-tips are typically the filters of choice. However, users may also use a small piece of a cigarette filter. After the mixture is pulled through the filter and into the syringe, these items will typically be stained with faint brownish markings.

Belts, Shoelaces & Rubber Tubing: To inject the drug, most user “tie off” to make their veins more pronounced. Missing a vein and hitting a muscle can be painful and a waste of drugs for users. Shoelaces and rubber tubing (workout bands, small hoses, etc.) are common make-shift tourniquets. However, belts are also popular. While a belt may just be a belt, if your child seems to always carry a belt in their book bag or car, it could indicate intravenous drug use.

Hypodermic Needles: Barring a medical condition, there is no reason for your child to own hypodermic needles. Of all paraphernalia, needles are the items users are the most careful about, however needles must also be discarded often. After one use, the needle becomes blunted, which increases the risk of vein damage, and reusing needles also leads to infections. For someone using intravenous drugs in the home, it is common to discard needles in empty aluminum cans. If your child’s room seems to always have empty aluminum cans, it may be wise to shake the cans to ensure discarding needles aren’t inside.

Orange Caps: While users may be careful about discarding the actual needles, they may be more careless about the caps. Many disposable hypothermic needles feature tiny orange caps that keep the needle sterile. Some also have larger caps over the syringes’ plunger. While most caps are bright orange, they do come in a variety of colors. If you find one or more small, plastic caps, it may be wise to ask your child what they are.


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