An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Teens and Pills: What Every Parent Should Know

Part two of a two-part series on prescription drugs

 Teens and Pills: What Every Parent Should Know

Attracted by the accessibility and ubiquity of prescription pills, teens continue to look to their medicine cabinets to get high or to improve their school performance. 

Every day, 2,000 teenagers, on average, use prescription drugs without a doctor's guidance for the first time, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. They pop pain relievers such as Oxycontin to relax and de-stress, and stimulants such as Adderall to study or party into the wee hours of the night. And unlike many illicit street drugs, prescription medications are easy to get, easy to hide and seem safer. 

In short, many teens don’t think this is a big deal. 

“Teens think, ‘This is a prescription medicine,’ and the perception is that it is safer,” says Andrew Harper, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School. “But they can be as dangerous as what you get off the street.” 

Like heroin, prescription opioid pain relievers (such as oxycodone, methadone and hydrocodone) are highly addictive, and taking them (or crushing and snorting them) can send users to the hospital — or the morgue. In fact, more people die from overdoses of prescription opioids than from all other drugs combined, including heroin and cocaine. Prescription stimulants prescribed for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also are dangerous if taken incorrectly or not in the prescribed amount. In some cases, an overdose can cause a heart attack, especially in individuals with an underlying heart condition. 

The problem is teens don’t know how someone else’s prescription will affect them, says Michelle S. Barratt, MD, MPH, a professor of pediatrics at UTHealth Medical School. 

“We choose medicines based on a person’s health history,” she says. “But if you are abusing your friend’s medicine, no one is looking at family or personal health history. You are taking a risk.” 

And while not every teen who experiments with prescription drugs overdoses or becomes addicted, even casual use has consequences. Pain relievers and depressants sedate the mind and body, impairing decision making and affecting performance in school. On the other end of the spectrum, stimulants increase impulsive behavior and cloud judgment, an especially dangerous combination for teenagers struggling to make the right choices. Teens abusing prescription drugs also are more likely to put themselves in risky situations, such as driving a car while intoxicated, or having unprotected or unwanted sex. They also are more likely to commit suicide if they are depressed. 

Scary, right? The good news is that parents can help by educating themselves about prescription drug abuse and how to prevent it. Here’s what Harper and Barratt say every parent should know: 

Teens get prescription drugs from home or from their friends  

“Teenagers are picking drugs up from their medicine cabinets at home, or their friends’ medicine cabinets, or they are selling them to each other,” Harper says. “People have the habit of letting a medication sit in their medicine cabinet and not doing anything with it, because they don’t want it to go to waste, or they want it in the future — and then the kids get hold of it.” 

Teens also pick up pills at parties. “They bring bottles of their parents’ medicines and put them in a common bowl to share,” Barratt says, adding that they could pick anything out of the mix. “They might pick Ibuprofen, or hydrocodone, or something that won’t get them high, like a blood pressure medicine, but could be dangerous.” 

And teens don’t have much trouble finding prescriptions drugs if they want them. About 50 percent of high school seniors said that opioid drugs other than heroin (such as Vicodin) or tranquilizers (such as Xanax) would be fairly or very easy to get, according to the 2012 Monitoring the Future survey. 

Experimenting with drugs begins earlier than you think

Harper says children may start using drugs as early as age 12. “They are becoming more aware at that age, and maybe see members of their peer group using them, which can be a very powerful influence.” 

Trust is important, but so is locking up your meds

“Parents should definitely secure their medications, and if they are not actively using them, they should get rid of them,” Harper says, advising parents to consult their pharmacy about proper disposal. Flushing pills down the toilet is not recommended with some prescription medications. 

If taking medications for a chronic condition, count the pills regularly, advises Barratt. Also, track children’s prescription medications, especially prescriptions for ADHD. Having extra money or changes in his school performance could be a sign teenagers are selling their medication, instead of taking it. 

Parental involvement helps prevent abuse

“The first line of defense is to be aware of what your kids are doing,” Harper says. “Be interested in their activities, where they are going and who their friends are. There’s evidence that even if you can’t be home with your kids, that even just calling to touch base to see how things are going, and seeing what they are up to, has value.” 

Barratt agrees. “Our teens don’t like us in their business,” she says. “But if you find out that your teen is going somewhere and they don’t want to let you know where, or they don’t want to give you the contact information for the supervising adult, then that’s a concern.” 

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