Most teenage heroin users started out misusing prescription drugs, a study has revealed.

Research found 75% of teenagers using heroin had first taken legal painkillers before going on to take the class-A drug. The study by academics at New York University polled students at 130 high schools in the United States over a four-year period from 2009 to 2013.

The study found that many young people started taking prescription opioids like Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycontin without realising they could be addictive. Then after they had become dependent on the painkillers, they progressed to harder drugs to achieve a high.

Of the students who took part in the survey, 12.4% admitted misusing painkillers on at least one occasion, while 1.2% said they had abused heroin.

Dr Joseph J Palamar, co-author of the study, said: “As frequency of lifetime opioid use increased, so did the odds for reporting heroin use, with over three-quarters of heroin users reporting lifetime nonmedical opioid use.”

Almost one in four students who had taken opioids on more than 40 occasions had also used heroin.

Men more at risk of substance misuse

The research, which was carried out across 48 different states, found male students were more likely to abuse drugs than females. Students who lived with both their parents were at a lower risk of substance misuse than those who lived with just their mother or their father.

And the results suggested white students were more likely to be using prescription pills as a gateway drug than those from other ethnic backgrounds.

Dr Pedro Mateu-Gelabert, who co-authored the study with Dr Palamar, said: ‘Interestingly, while we found that black and Hispanic students were at low risk for both opioid and heroin use generally, black and Hispanic students were more likely to use heroin without first using opioids in a nonmedical manner.

“This suggests that it is primarily the white students who may be transitioning from pill use to heroin.”

Parents often worry that their sons or daughters may start using illegal drugs while at high school, college or university. Peace of mind drugs tests can allow people who suspect a loved one may be abusing illegal substances to find out for sure.

AlphaBiolabs offers a hair strand drug test which can reveal the extent of substance misuse over a period of time up to 12 months, depending on the length of the sample. For parents who want to find out whether their teenager has taken drugs recently, our home drug testing kit gives an accurate result in just five minutes by screening urine for a range of substances including opiates, cocaine and cannabis.