Trend towards Prescription Drugs
How Many Teens Abuse Prescription Drugs?
In 2008, 1.9 million youth (or 7.7 percent) age 12 to 17 abused prescription drugs, with 1.6 million (6.5 percent) abusing a prescription pain medication. That makes painkillers among the most commonly abused drugs by teens after tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana. In fact, each day an average of 2,000 teenagers age 12 to 17 used a prescription drug without a doctor’s guidance for the first time. (NIDA for Teens @ www.drugabuse.gov)
You care about your children. And you probably know them better than anyone. That’s why you should be aware that while teen drug use is down overall, one category is actually on the rise — the abuse of prescription drugs. In fact, for the first time ever, there are just as many new abusers (12 and older) of prescription drugs — such as pain relievers, depressants, and stimulants— as there are of marijuana.
There is a growing trend of students using and sharing these prescription drugs to get high, often in combination with other drugs or alcohol.
What Are the Most Commonly Abused Prescription and Over-the-Counter Drugs?
Opioids (such as the pain relievers OxyContin and Vicodin), central nervous system depressants (e.g., Xanax, Valium), and stimulants (e.g., Concerta, Adderall) are the most commonly abused prescription drugs. Drugs available without a prescription—also known as over-the-counter drugs—can also be abused. DXM (dextromethorphan), the active cough suppressant found in many over-the-counter cough and cold medications, is one example. It is sometimes abused to get high, which requires large doses (more than what is on the package instructions) that can be dangerous.
Prescription drugs can have powerful effects in the brain and body, and they act on the same brain sites as illicit drugs. Opioid painkillers act on the same sites in the brain as heroin; prescription stimulants have effects in common with cocaine. And people sometimes take the medications in ways that can be very dangerous in both the short and long term (e.g., crushing pills and snorting or injecting the contents). Also, abusing prescription drugs is illegal—and that includes sharing prescriptions with friends.
What’s Wrong With Abusing Prescription Drugs?
Virtually every medication presents some risk of undesirable side effects, sometimes even serious ones. Doctors consider the potential benefits and risks to each patient before prescribing medications. They understand that drugs affect the body in many ways and take into account things like the drug’s form and dose, its possible side effects, and the potential for addiction or withdrawal. For example, doctors know how to change the dose of a painkiller to prevent withdrawal symptoms. People who abuse drugs might not understand how these factors may affect them or that prescription drugs do more than cause a high, help them stay awake, help them relax, or relieve pain.
- Form and dose. Doctors know how long it takes for a pill or capsule to dissolve in the stomach, release drugs to the bloodstream, and reach the brain. They also take into account a person’s weight, how long they’ve been prescribed the medication, and what other medications they are taking. When abused, prescription drugs may be taken in inappropriate doses or by routes of administration that change the way the drugs act in the body, risking overdose. For example, when people who abuse oxycodone (OxyContin) crush and inhale the pills, a 12-hour dose hits their central nervous system all at once—which can be lethal.
- Side effects. Prescription drugs are designed to treat a particular illness or condition, but they often have other effects on the body, some of which can be dangerous. These are referred to as side effects. For example, OxyContin stops pain, but it also causes constipation and drowsiness and slows breathing. Stimulants such as Adderall increase attention but also raise blood pressure and heart rate. These side effects can be made worse when prescription drugs are not taken as prescribed or are abused in combination with other substances—including alcohol, other prescription drugs, and even over-the-counter drugs, such as cold medicines. For instance, some people mix alcohol and benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium), both of which can slow breathing. This combination could stop breathing altogether, requiring emergency care, or worse—it could be fatal.
- Addiction. Studies show that when people take a medication as it is prescribed for a medical condition—such as pain or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—they usually do not become addicted, because the medication is prescribed in dosages and forms that are considered safe. The drug is compensating for a problem, which makes the person feel better, not high. But medications that affect the brain can change the way it functions—especially when they are taken repeatedly. They can alter the reward system, making it harder to feel good without the drug and leading to some of the intense cravings people develop, which make it hard to stop using. This is no different from what can happen when someone takes illicit drugs—and addiction is a real possibility.
- Withdrawal. Taking drugs repeatedly over a period of time causes changes in the body as well as the brain, resulting in physical dependence. That is, the body adapts to the drug’s presence, and when its use is abruptly stopped, the person can experience withdrawal symptoms. This can happen even in someone who is prescribed medications and takes them appropriately—which is why a physician should be consulted when stopping prescription medications as well as when starting them. The withdrawal symptoms depend on the drug itself—for opioids, they can include nausea, chills, vomiting, muscle pain, and diarrhea. These symptoms can often be controlled or diminished with proper medical supervision.
- (NIDA for Teens: www.drugabuse.gov)
Warning Signs of Teen Prescription Drug Abuse
None of the following warning signs definitely indicate a drug abuse problem, but the more signs you observe, the more concerned you should feel.
- Missing medications – Teens abusing prescription drugs often find what they need to get high from the family medicine cabinet. Be aware of what medications you keep and in what quantities, and be concerned if pills start to go missing or if prescriptions need refilling earlier than expected. Remember also to dispose of old and no longer needed pills safely.
- Sudden changes in friends – Teens abusing drugs often abandon long held friends for new friends who also abuse drugs.
- A sudden change in attitude or personality – Teens can be a bit moody at times, but a dramatic change in core personality traits merits investigation.
- A sudden change in appearance – Teens tend to put a great deal of thought into their appearance, and so a sudden disinterest in personal appearance or hygiene may be a warning sign of a bigger problem. Be concerned if your teen no longer seems to care about the way they look, or no longer seems to be worried about keeping clean and well presented.
- Poor school performance – getting high isn’t particularly conducive to academic performance and so many teens that start abusing drugs also start doing more poorly in school. A sudden drop in grades may be cause for concern.
- No longer participating in activities that were once enjoyed – A loss of interest in previously enjoyed extracurricular activities (sports teams, clubs etc.) may indicate a problem, especially when activities are dropped but not replaced with anything other than ‘hanging out’.
- A sudden change in sleeping habits –Abusing prescription drugs can wreak havoc on sleep schedules. Some medications can keep teens up for days on end, ending eventually in marathon slumbers while other drugs may have your teen nodding off in the early evening. Teens can be notoriously hard to get out of bed on a weekend morning, this is normal, but be watchful for extreme changes in sleeping habits.
- An unexplained need for money – A drug habit gets expensive in a hurry, and so if your teen seems always short of money or seems to go through a lot of money with very little to show for it, you may want to investigate further.
- Theft – Teens abusing drugs will do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do to get the money they need, and this includes stealing money or valuables from the home or from family members.
- A sudden increased need for secrecy – Teens tend to like their privacy and time alone with their friends, but extremely secretive behavior implies a secret that needs concealment. Be concerned if your teen suddenly withdraws from family activities that were previously found enjoyable, starts spending an inordinate amount of time behind a locked bedroom door or never seems to want to come home.
- Physical signs of intoxication – If your teen looks high, they may well be high. Signs of prescription drug intoxication can include pinpoint pupils, drowsiness and slurred speech.
12. Forgetfulness or a lack of attention – Prescription drugs can lead to attention deficits and forgetfulness. Teens that seem suddenly a bit foggy headed may be using something that induces mental under performance.
- Sudden weight loss – some medications (particularly stimulant or amphetamine like drugs) can reduce appetite and lead to sudden and dramatic weight loss.
- Frequent injuries – Teens abusing prescription drugs tend to get hurt while intoxicated and then tend to have vague explanations for their frequent bruises, lacerations and breaks.
- A sudden defiance – teens who abuse drugs sometimes become suddenly very confrontational and aggressive.
Think about your home. What prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs do you have? Where are they kept? Would you know if some were missing? The good news is that you can take steps immediately to limit access to those drugs and help keep your child drug free.
Learn to Recognize the signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse, and:
- Safeguard all drugs in your home.
- Monitor quantities and control access
- Set clear rules about all drug use, including not sharing medications.
- Always make sure your child is following the medical provider’s advice and dosages.
- Be a role model by following the same rules with your own medications.
- Properly conceal and dispose of old and unused medications.
- Ask friends and family members to safeguard their prescription drugs as well.