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Teen prescription drug abuse: What parents need to know

Mary Fetzer is a freelance writer and marketing consultant with a marketing degree from Penn State University and 15 years of international business experience. Mary specializes in writing about parenting, children, pregnancy, college, h...

The new street drug

As parents, we hid medicines from our curious toddlers. When they grew older, we warned them about street drugs like marijuana, heroine and cocaine. But how many of us told our children about the dangers of prescription drugs? Find out which prescription drugs are frequently abused, the symptoms your teen may be using and what you can do about it.

Teen in Medicine Cabinet
Prescription drugs help people -- when they're used as prescribed by a doctor. When used by anyone else, or for any other reason, the once safe and legal prescription medication becomes a dangerous and illegal drug. There is a growing trend among teens to abuse prescription drugs -- their own or someone else's. Taking prescription medicines in a way that hasn't been recommended by a doctor is drug abuse.

Why teens turn to prescription drugs

Teens experiment with prescription drugs for a variety of reasons: to have fun, lose weight, stay awake, fall asleep, fit in or study more effectively. Additionally, prescription drugs are often easier to get than street drugs, especially if family members or friends have a prescription. Some teens believe the prescription drugs their mom, dad or siblings use come from a doctor so are safer and less addictive than street drugs.

To lose weight, for example, a teen might take a sibling's ADHD medicine to control her appetite. Since it was prescribed by a doctor, and since her little brother takes it, then it must be safe, right? Abusing this type of drug can cause fatal heart failure or seizures.
 
Another teen may experiment with a friend's prescription pain killer because he believes he's not doing anything illegal. But taking drugs without a prescription -- or sharing someone else's prescription -- is breaking the law. Just one dose of a prescription painkiller can lower a teen's breathing rate and even result in death.

Teens who abuse prescription drugs aren't always taking them from a family member. Prescription drugs are also sold on the street like other illegal drugs.

The dangers of abusing prescription medicine

Prescription drugs are not safe for anyone except the person for whom the medicine was prescribed. Prescriptions are based on an examination by a doctor, who determines an appropriate dose for a specific medical condition. These drugs come with instructions on how the medicine should be taken, including things to avoid -- such as alcohol, smoking, or taking other drugs. The doctor and patient also should have discussed any potentially dangerous side effects and how to handle them.

Even if your teen has the same health condition as a friend or sibling, it's not wise to share prescription drugs. Every person responds differently to medications, and a drug that's safe for one person may not be appropriate -- or may be downright dangerous -- for another. Overdosing isn't the only way drugs kill. Reactions with other medicines or drugs can be just as deadly.

Prescription drug abuse can lead to addiction. Someone abusing a legal medication can become addicted just as easily as if it were a street drug. This is why such powerful medications are prescribed by a doctor and why doctors often will not renew a prescription without seeing a patient. A doctor's examination should detect any signs of addiction.

Which prescription drugs are teens abusing?

There are three classes of prescription drugs that are commonly abused -- opioids, central nervous system depressants, and stimulants.

  • Opioids are used to treat pain, among other maladies. Opioids attach to receptors in the brain and spinal cord to prevent the brain from receiving pain messages. Examples of opioids include OxyContin, Vicodin and Demerol.
  • Central nervous system (CNS) depressants treat anxiety, panic attacks and sleep disorders by slowing brain activity to create a calming effect. Abruptly stopping CNS depressants can lead to seizures. Taking CNS depressants with other medications -- even cold or allergy meds -- can slow a person's heart and breathing to the point of death. Valium and Xanax are CNS depressants.
  • Stimulants are often used for ADHD. Stimulants affect brain activity to improve attention, alertness and energy. Abusing stimulants may lead to irregular heartbeat, heart failure, seizures or dangerously high body temperature and these risks increase when the stimulants are mixed with other medicines. Ritalin and Adderall are examples of stimulants.

What about over-the-counter drugs?

A teen may turn to over-the-counter (OTC) medication because they believe it's less powerful than a prescription drug, but it is possible to abuse or become addicted to over-the-counter (OTC) medications, too.

OTC cough medicines are frequently abused. Some cough medicines contain dextromethorphan (DXM) which is appropriate for most people when taken as recommended. High doses of DXM, however, can cause confusion, stomach pain, numbness, hallucinations, loss of motor control, and problems with vision and hearing. DXM overdoses can also result in seizures, brain damage and death. Compounding the danger is the presence of other ingredients -- such as decongestants and pain relievers -- that increase the risks of DXM.

Because of these risks, some areas of the US require OTC cold medicines to be purchased in limited quantities at the pharmacy counter.

What parents can do

Monitor the medications in your household: Keep all drugs in a locked medicine cabinet. Do not save old prescriptions. Throw away any medications you're no longer using. Keep track of how much medicine is in each bottle.

Changes in mood, weight, interests or friends are just some of the signs of drug addiction. If you have reason to suspect your child is abusing OTC or prescription drugs, you must deal with it immediately. With some drugs –--such as CNS depressants -- unmonitored withdrawal can be very dangerous. Take your teen to a health professional or counselor to get help.

Parents: Make sure your child understands that all drugs -- illegal street drugs, prescription medications and OTC medicines -- are risky and deadly when abused.

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