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Teens and Prescription Drugs: A Growing Problem

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Prescription drug abuse among teens is a concern across the country, and the results can be tragic. All too often, trouble begins when teens experiment with leftover meds in the bathroom medicine cabinet.

There are several reasons why kids turn to prescription drugs. Teens often take drugs to get high or to relax, cope with stress, help them sleep, boost energy, or improve concentration at school.

Opiates are a problem which everyone knows about, but other medications are just as dangerous, including ADD/ADHD medications (stimulants) like Ritalin and Adderall, or benzodiazepines (tranquilizers) like Xanax and Valium.

Cough medicine is also frequently abused by kids looking for a quick and inexpensive way to experiment with drugs, particularly medicines containing dextromethorphan (DXM). DXM, which is found in many over-the-counter cough syrups, is also available in pills, capsules, or powders.

Teens may also abuse cough syrup containing alcohol or codeine.

Prescription Drugs: The Risks

While most parents and teens don’t fully understand the risks of taking prescription drugs, the dangers shouldn’t be minimized.

Teens often think prescription drugs are safe because a doctor prescribed them. Kids who have been prescribed medications for surgery, illness, or injury may think it’s safe to use the drugs even when they’re no longer needed.

Parents frequently minimize the danger of prescription medications, too. They tend to worry more about methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine, but the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that prescription drugs are responsible for more overdose deaths than illegal street drugs.

Some prescription meds, including opiates, are extremely addictive. A teen can become psychologically dependent in a couple of days, physically dependent within a month, and completely addicted in less than a year.

What Research Says About Teens and Prescription Meds

Data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) indicates that more than 14 percent of high school seniors admitted they had misused a prescription drug in the past year.

Research by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids reveals that one in five teens admitted they had used prescription medications written for other people. More than half had easy access to the drugs in their family’s medicine cabinet, while others attained drugs from a friend or relative.

Another study tracked people who overdosed on prescription meds but didn’t have a prescription. The takeaway was that people with a family member with a prescription was at least three times as likely to overdose than people without ready access.

The most common source of prescription meds, according to teens, were friends, family members, and their own prescriptions. Nearly a third said they used medications they found at home. The study also shows boys are more likely than girls to buy drugs from illegal sources or get them from friends.

About three-quarters of high school seniors who used prescription drugs for non-medical use also used alcohol or other drugs. This substantially compounds the danger of addiction and overdose.

Keeping Kids Safe

It’s risky to keep prescription drugs when they’re no longer needed. It increases the risk of addiction and overdose for you and your family, and for your kids’ friends, or other guests who might take an interest in your medicine cabinet.

Of course, there’s always a danger of accidental poisoning for young children or pets that might get into the drugs.

How can you keep your prescription drugs away from teens? Here are a few tips:

  • Store your meds out of sight, in a locked cabinet. The storage location should be cool and dry. A moist, warm bathroom isn’t usually the best place to store medications.
  • Never share your medications with friends or family; what works for you may be dangerous for another person. Also, old medications may harbor harmful bacteria or fungus that can cause severe illness.
  • Always keep prescription drugs in their original containers.
  • Never leave prescription drugs in your car.
  • Find out about drug take-back programs in your area. Your local hospital may be an approved location for the disposal of controlled substances. You can also find your nearest public disposal location by clicking here.
  • Many communities participate in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s National Drug Take-back Days, held in April and October. Your pharmacist or local law-enforcement should have that information.

To Flush or Not to Flush

The Food and Drug Administration advises that most prescription medicines can be disposed of through a take-back program. If such a program isn’t readily available, you can dispose of the drugs carefully in your garbage can.

To dispose of drugs safely in your trash, remove the pills from the container and put them in a resealable bag with something unappetizing and messy like coffee grounds, dirt, or cat litter.  Scratch out information on the label to protect your privacy and identity.

Most drugs shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet because they can show up in streams and rivers. However, certain high-risk drugs should be flushed as soon as possible.

The FDA recommends flushing medicines when there is no take-back option, and when the drug is potentially dangerous. Flushing is advised for drugs that are so powerful that a single dose can be fatal if it falls into the wrong hands.

Drugs that should be flushed immediately include fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, and buprenorphine.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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