Highs in the home

More teens abusing medications

By Douglas Gregory, MD


While use of some drugs we traditionally think of as teen highs – marijuana, cocaine and LSD – is on the decline, many teens are replacing them with substances just as dangerous: prescription and over-the-counter medications. “Pharm Parties,” where the kids bring prescription drugs from home, dump them into a candy dish and everyone grabs a handful, are a particularly alarming manifestation of this trend.

According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, approximately one in five teens reports abusing prescription medication to get high, and one in 10 reports abusing OTC cough medicine to get high.

Specific medications abused include opiate painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin, anti-anxiety medications like Xanax and Valium, ADHD medications such as Ritalin and Adderall and cough syrups such as Robitussin and Nyquil.

There are several factors behind this alarming trend. One is ease of access. Teens can find these drugs in the medicine cabinets of their own and their friends’ homes or order them online from illegal pharmacies, a particularly dangerous practice.

Another problem is that many young people mistakenly believe prescription medications offer a safer, less addictive high than street drugs. They think that if it’s OK for mom or dad to take these pills, they must be safe. This, of course, is not the case. These medications can be just as lethal and just as addictive as other drugs.

Type of Drug Examples Side Effects
Depressants Valium, Xanax Loss of coordination, breathing problems, low blood pressure, slurred speech, poor concentration, feelings of confusion, coma, death
Stimulants Concerta, Adderall Increased heart and respiratory rates, excessive sweating, vomiting, tremors, anxiety, hostility, convulsions, sudden cardiac death
Painkillers Vicodin, Oxycontin Drowsiness, inability to concentrate, apathy, lack of energy, constricted pupils, flushing, constipation, nausea, vomiting, respiratory distress
OTC cough and cold medicines Anything containing active ingredient DXM Impaired judgment, nausea, loss of coordination, headache, vomiting, loss of consciousness, numbness of fingers and toes, abdominal pain, irregular heartbeat, aches, seizures, panic attacks, psychosis, euphoria, cold flashes, dizziness, diarrhea

Tips for Parents

Teach your children about the risks. Make sure your children know from an early age that medications are safe only when taken as prescribed, by the person they were prescribed for. Taking any medication or dose of medication that is not prescribed for you can be lethal.

Keep track of quantities. Note how many pills are in a bottle and ask other households your teen visits, such as grandparents’ houses, to do the same. If you find you have to refill medication for a chronic condition more often than recommended, you need to consider that your child may be taking it. Store medications safely, preferably in a locked container or cabinet.

Discard old or unused medications. Unused prescription drugs should be disposed of in the trash. It is best to add an undesirable substance (like used coffee grounds or kitty litter) and put the mixture in an impermeable, non-descript container like an empty can or bag. Unless the directions say otherwise, do NOT flush medications down the drain or toilet because the chemicals can taint the water supply. Also, remove any personal, identifiable information from prescription bottles or pill packages before you throw them away.

Monitor your teen’s time online. Check browser histories (on cell phones as well as PCs) and set a time limit for how long your teen can be online.

Be observant. If you find your teen is quickly going through cough syrup, or you find empty bottles and pill packages among your child’s personal effects, talk with her, listen carefully, and determine if there is a problem. If you suspect a problem, call your pediatrician immediately.

Find other ways to relieve stress and have fun. Many teens cite stress and boredom as reasons they abuse prescription and OTC drugs. Help your teen find other ways to relieve pressure and pass time. Sports do both at the same time. But almost any activity that brings your child pleasure and a sense of accomplishment will help him withstand the temptation to reach for drugs.

Dr. Gregory is an independent practitioner with Lakeview Pediatrics.

Information for this article is excerpted with permission from the Web site www.theantidrug.com.