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What you need to know about prescription drug abuse in teens

August 31, 2015

Want to hear some good news?

Misuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs by teenagers has decreased considerably over the last decade. In 2004, roughly one in every ten high school seniors reported abusing prescription pain relievers within the previous year. In 2014, this number was down to one out of 16.

Of course this is excellent news, but there’s still more work to be done. One out of 16 teenagers is still a lot, and no parent wants their child to fall victim to the vicious cycle of drug abuse and addiction.

Here are some things you should know about prescription drug abuse as your children approach their pre-teen and teenage years.

What is prescription drug abuse?

Abuse or misuse of a prescription drug means that a medication is used in a way that was not intended by the prescribing doctor. Whenever a medication is used by someone other than the person for whom it was prescribed, for a reason other than the specific condition it was intended to treat or in a manner other than the directions given by the physician, this is considered misuse or abuse.

Abuse can be as simple as bumming a pain pill from a friend for your backache or as menacing as crushing several pain pills to snort and get high.

Medications that have abuse potential

Medications that have the highest likelihood of abuse are painkillers, anti-anxiety medications and stimulants.

Narcotic pain medications are used to treat a variety of illnesses that result in severe or chronic pain- everything from injuries to cancer. Some common pain medications you may have heard of are Vicodin, Percocet or OxyContin (See a more in-depth list of narcotic pain medications, here).

Anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax or Valium as well as stimulants such as Ritalin for the treatment of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder also have the potential to be used inappropriately. (Check out these links for a list of anti-anxiety and stimulant medications.)

When used as prescribed under a doctor’s care, these medications can be very safe and effective for the illnesses they treat. However, they also have the potential to be misused to obtain a certain feeling or high, which can become very dangerous.

Why teens misuse prescription medications

Often, when teenagers experiment with prescription medications, it’s because they believe they are safer than illegal drugs. A commercially produced tablet may seem much less dangerous than an illicit drug. They also may incorrectly assume that a prescription medication wouldn’t get them into as much trouble if caught.

One of the most common reasons prescription medications are abused by teenagers, though, is this: they are easy to obtain. If they are looking to experiment or to get high, they may not need to look any further than your medicine cabinet.

What’s a parent to do to protect their teenager?

Talk to your kids

Open up the dialogue early and often. Don’t delay until you suspect your child may have gotten into trouble, when the conversation feels to them like an accusation. Talk to them before they’ve had the opportunity to be misinformed by their peers. Tell them about the dangers of using medication without a doctor’s supervision- that even one pill can cause overdose or death. Discuss the potential for dependence and addiction that can create a lifetime of struggle. Reinforce the idea that a momentary high isn’t worth giving your life away, and tell them that you love them too much to let that happen to them.

Practice what you preach

Don’t be casual with the use of your medications. If you have a back problem or need some medication to sleep at night, instead of bumming medication from your spouse or friend, see a doctor. Use medication the way your doctor has intended for you to use it and set a positive example for the way you’d like your children to use it as well.

Store your medication safely

If you have been prescribed medication that could potentially be abused by others, store it carefully. If needed, keep it in a locked cabinet. Be aware of what you have and how much is there. If you had a back injury and have some leftover pain medicine, throw it away. Don’t share your medications with others and don’t keep unneeded medication lying around.

Know when to be concerned

Prescription drug abuse may produce physical symptoms as well as behavioral ones. Misuse of pain or anti-anxiety medication may cause drowsiness, confusion, slurred speech, constipation or unsteady walking. Stimulant medications may cause irritability, insomnia, weight loss or agitation.

Other more general symptoms might be an increase or decrease in sleep, mood swings, appearing to be unusually energetic or sedated, hostility and poor decision-making.

If you’re concerned that your child may be misusing medication, contact your child’s doctor right away.

For help finding a substance abuse treatment center near you, call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or search online, here.