Prescription medicines are widely abused by teens: Strategies for parents


Recently we wrote about the tragic death of a 2-year-old child due to an accidental overdose of fentanyl after putting a used patch in his mouth. This was not the first time we wrote about a young child unintentionally gaining access to a powerful medicine. For this reason, we have often emphasized the importance of keeping all medicines up and away and out of reach of young children. But what about older children and teenagers?

 According to a study by The Partnership at , one in five teens, age 12 to 17, say they have taken prescription medicines that were not prescribed for them. Access to prescription medicines is easy. More than half of the teens in the study obtained prescription medicines from their own family medicine cabinet (called “pharming”—see Table 1). Others obtain the medicine from a friend, at a “pharm party” or from a relative. One teen’s story about the lowest moment of his addiction to painkillers rings true for many; he had visited his grandfather who had been diagnosed with cancer, not to comfort him but to steal his pain medicine. In fact, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates that, every day, 2,500 teens use prescription drugs to get high for the first time; 60% of teens abusing these drugs are under 15 years old.   table1. language


Being a teen can be very stressful. They are trying to become more independent and responsible. They want to do well in school and excel in sports. They may feel pressure from peers and family to make important decisions about their futures. Teens state that they turn to prescription drugs to help them “manage” or “regulate” their lives. They may use stimulant drugs such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall (dextroamphetamine and amphetamine) to give them more energy and the ability to focus. They may use prescription pain relievers such as OxyContin (oxycodone) and Vicodin (hydrocodone and acetaminophen), or tranquilizers such as Xanax (alprazolam) or Ativan (lorazepam), to cope with academic, social, or emotional stress. They may self-medicate with a family member’s antidepressant, such as Prozac (fluoxetine) or Paxil (paroxetine), when they feel sad or anxious. They may use prescription amphetamines to lose weight or prescription steroids to bulk up. It is not unusual to have one or more of these and many other powerful prescription medicines in the home.


According to the DEA, as many as 2 in 5 teens believe prescription drugs are “much” safer than street drugs and see no harm in sharing them with friends. Since these medicines have been prescribed by doctors, teens don’t think these types of medicines can harm them like street drugs. If taking one pill is safe, why not take a few more? Teens tend to feel invincible as if nothing serious will ever happen to them. Most teens also report that their parents have never talked to them about the risks of taking prescription medicines not intended for them. Most parental discussions have been focused on street drugs like cocaine and marijuana. But taking medicines prescribed for others has resulted in serious harm, including addiction and death.


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), prescription medicines, including pain medicines and antidepressants, are responsible for more overdose deaths than street drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines. Some teens—as many as 3 in 10—also believe prescription pain medicines are not addictive. A growing number of teens who start abusing expensive prescription drugs switch to heroin, which is cheaper and easier to buy. Today, there are more regular drug users who started their habit with prescription medicines than those who started their drug habit with marijuana. Taking prescription drugs not prescribed for them can also prevent teens from developing appropriate coping skills. A recent study from the West Illinois University School of Public Health  showed that college students who misused prescription medicine—particularlypainkillers like Vicodin andOxyContin—are at increased risk of depression and thoughts of suicide.


The Partnership at has collaborated with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and several drug companies, including Covidien and Cardinal Health, to sponsor a first-of-its-kind week-long campaign, Wake Up to Medicine Abuse. The campaign , which will take place September 23-29, 2012, will encourage and help parents to take action: first, by talking with teens about the dangers of abusing prescription and over-the-counter medicines, and second, by safeguarding medications. We will let you know when additional tools to support this campaign are available. For now, to protect your teen from prescription drug abuse, follow the steps outlined below to help protect your teens from prescription drug abuse:



  • Talk to your teens. Most teens say that their parents have the biggest influence on their decision to avoid drugs. Use this influence to talk to your teens about the dangers of prescription drug abuse. Make sure they know prescription drugs are no less harmful than street drugs, and that taking prescription or over-the-counter medicines without a doctor's approval and supervision can be dangerous—even deadly.
  • Monitor your medicines. Would you know if some pills were missing from your family’s prescription bottles? Make sure you take note of how many pills you have in each bottle/packet. Keep track of refills for all medicines used by your family members. If you need to refill your prescription more often than expected, this could signal a problem. If your teen is prescribed a medicine, you need to control and monitor how much they take.
  • Make others aware of risks. Make sure friends and relatives, especially grandparents, are aware of the risks associated with teen prescription abuse. Encourage them to regularly monitor their medicine cabinets.
  • Secure your medicines. Hide prescription medicines that may be abused in a place only you know about. Keep prescription and over-the-counter medicines in a locked cabinet.
  • Dispose expired or unused medicines. Discard any expired or unused medicines when your teen is not at home. Be aware that teens will go through the trash to retrieve discarded medicines. Mix the medicines you are throwing away with coffee grinds or kitty litter. Remove any personal information from bottles or vials of discarded medicines. This will prevent any unauthorized refill.



Created on July 16, 2012

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