By: Heather R. Hayes, M.Ed., LPC, CAI, CIP
January 8, 2018
With the national opioid epidemic making regular headlines, it’s clear that prescription medication abuse is impacting teens at an alarming rate. It’s important for parents to understand that the family medicine cabinet is now one of our most dangerous drug dealers and that prescription medications can be just as dangerous and addictive as “street drugs.”
Among American teenagers 14 and older, prescription drugs are the most commonly abused substance after alcohol and marijuana. In 2017 alone, nearly 11% of all 12th graders had misused them.1 In fact, college- and post-college-aged (18-25 year olds) young adults abuse prescription opioid painkillers more than any other demographic in the country.2
Teens use these substances for a variety of reasons, including pure curiosity, peer pressure, to relieve legitimate physical pain (e.g., for a sports injury or after surgery), or to numb emotional pain. More than 2/3 of teens said they got the prescription medications they abused from family or friends, which means that your medicine cabinet may now be one of the most dangerous places in your house.3 Adolescents and young adults also report obtaining prescription drugs from people at school or from dealers in the community.
Teens abuse prescription drugs by:
• Taking someone else’s prescription painkillers.
• Taking their own medications for reasons other than prescribed.
• Taking them for the express purpose of getting high.
• Taking them with other drugs (e.g., pharma parties).
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that teens most commonly abuse the following prescription medications:
• Opioids: Vicodin, OxyContin, etc.
• Stimulants: Ritalin, Adderall, etc.
• Depressants: Xanax, Valium, etc.
These drugs all create potential side effects when they are abused, including:
• Sleepiness (opioids and depressants).
• Nausea (opioids).
• Constipation (opioids).
• Depressed breathing (opioids).
• Paranoia (stimulants).
• Dangerously high body temperature (stimulants).
• Dangerously fast heart beat (stimulants).
• Slurred speech (depressants).
• Shallow breathing (depressants).
• Disorientation (depressants).
• Seizures (when suddenly stopping depressants after abusing them).
• Changes in mood, perceptions, and behavior.
• Poor judgment.
• Increased risk-taking behaviors.
Teens and young adults typically aren’t worried about these side effects when they take the medications, nor are they considering the real peril they can create, including overdose and death. However, in 2014, more than 1,700 kids ages 18-24 died from a prescription drug overdose, which is nearly 5 people a day.2 And for every death that year, adolescents made 119 ER visits and had 22 admissions to treatment centers related to prescription medications.
This is a serious problem plaguing our young people today, and it shows no sign of improving. This means that we, as parents, educators, and mental health and medical professionals, need to be vigilant about actively protecting our young people. Various preventative measures may include comprehensive education about painkillers and other prescription medications and their effects when abused. Parents, especially, must consider how to safely store and dispose of medication at home, particularly if they know that their teen has experimented with these substances or has a propensity toward risk-seeking behaviors.
Additionally, the medical community must hold themselves to the highest standard concerning prescription drug monitoring, and all of us must demand that our elected officials take seriously the dangers of irresponsible practices around prescribing highly addictive substances. Together we can push back against the wave of prescription drug abuse harm, addiction, and death in our country.
1. The National Institute on Drug Abuse Blog Team. (2017). Prescription Drugs.
2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Abuse of Prescription (Rx) Drugs Affects Young Adults Most.
3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). Rise in Prescription Drug Misuse and Abuse Impacting Teens.