How to Help Prevent Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

If you’re a parent and you have teens at home (or even adolescents), don’t think that your prescription drugs are safe in your medicine cabinet. They’re not. And it doesn’t mean that your teen is necessarily going to raid your prescription stash so they can go out and get high – although that may very well be the case. What generally happens is that our teens know where we keep our prescriptions. They see us going there for this or that pill, and the imprint is made that this is where the drugs are.

Flash forward to a situation where your teen, in the company of other teens, has a discussion about drugs, availability of drugs, quick highs, and easy access. The conversation will inevitably get around to who’s parents have what kinds of drugs at home and can the teens get some. Think this doesn’t happen? You’d be wrong. Results from the 2008 Monitoring the Future Survey, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) show that 15.4 percent of 12th graders reported using a prescription drug nonmedically within the past year. Vicodin, according to the 2008 report, continues to be abused at “unacceptably high levels.” The category of drugs abused includes amphetamines, sedatives/barbiturates, tranquilizers and opiates (other than heroin). Many of the drugs abused by teens are prescription (for someone else) or available over-the-counter (OTC).

Where do teens get their drugs? You guessed it. They’re readily available in homes. Let’s take a look at some of the kinds of drugs teens most commonly abuse.

Classes of Prescription Medications Abused by Teens

According to NIDA, commonly abused classes of prescription medications include opioids (prescribed for pain), central nervous system (CNS) depressants for anxiety and sleep disorders, and stimulants for attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy.

Opiods – These include hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), propoxyphene (Darvon), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), meperidine (Demerol), and diphenoxylate (Lomotil).

CNS Depressants – The list includes barbiturates such as pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal), and benzodiazepines such as alprazolam (Zanax) and diazepam (Valium).

Stimulants – Popular stimulants include amphetamines (Adderall), dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), and methylphenidate (Concerta and Ritalin).

Note that this list is not all-inclusive. For a more complete listing of prescription drugs, including category and name, commercial and street names, DEA schedule and how administered, and intoxication effects and potential consequences, see the NIDA Prescription Drug Abuse Chart.

According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, every day, 2500 teenagers use a prescription drug to get high – for the first time. Why do they do it? According to the Partnership, their desire to get high outweighs their perception of any potential risks. Some 60 percent of teens who have abused prescription painkillers started before age 15. Another frightening statistic is that 12 to 17 year olds abuse prescription drugs more than they abuse crack/cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, and methamphetamine combined. And while marijuana is the illegal drug of choice for many teens, there are as many new abusers aged 12 to 17 of prescription drugs as there are of marijuana.

Tips to Prevent Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

Other than completely purging the household of all prescription and OTC medications, what other ways are there to safeguard your teens and help prevent prescription drug abuse? Here are several ideas:

• Lock ‘em up. – In the housing market, the axiom is “location, location, location.” The same could be said for prescription medications. In this case, however, the tip is to keep all prescriptions secure in the home. Once they’re not readily available, easy to surreptitiously filch and pocket, the problem of immediate access is solved. Keep all prescription medications in one location, and make sure to secure it with a lock. No, this isn’t too extreme. Remember, you are the parent. You need to control all the medications in the home. Period.

• Inventory and count everything. – Start now and take a complete inventory of every medication in the home. Write down what the medication is and what condition it’s for, who takes it, how often, brand and generic names, expiration dates, and so on. Then, count every pill in each of the containers. This inventory and counting is a practice you should repeat weekly. The idea is to stay on top of quantities. When and if you notice some missing, it’s a sign that something’s not right and needs addressing further.

• Check expiration dates and discard old prescriptions. – Using your handy inventory sheet, go through and check the prescriptions with expired dates. Discard all those prescriptions safely. Do not flush them down the toilet or drain unless you are specifically instructed to do so. Guidelines from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy have the following recommendations for proper disposal of prescription drugs:

o Take the prescription drugs out of their original containers. Conceal or remove any personally-identifiable information from the container labels, including prescription number. Use black indelible marker or scratch off information. Place the empty drug containers, now devoid of personal identification, in the trash receptacle.

o Mix with coffee grounds, kitty litter or other undesirable substances and place in a sealed container before dumping in the trash receptacle.

o Inquire about community prescription take-back programs. These are an excellent and safe way to dispose of expired or unwanted prescription drugs.

o Many communities hold hazardous waste collection events that collect drugs at a central location and dispose of them safely. Make use of these services.

o Contact your pharmacist for proper disposal methods and locations.

• Be informed about drugs of abuse. – Before you can have intelligent conversations with your teens (and adolescents) about the dangers of prescription drug abuse, you need to educate yourself on the types of drugs that are currently being abused in this population. Know the latest drug abuse trends and be mindful of the kinds of drug-related incidents going on in your community and your teen’s school.

• Talk to your teens. – Get in the practice of having candid and open discussions with your teens (and adolescents) about prescription and OTC medications. Let them know the rules and what you expect from them. Keep dialog open, especially if the subject of drug abuse comes up after a television news report, public service announcement, or your teens mention a drug incident involving their friends or at school. Don’t limit the discussion to just prescription drugs, since street or illegal drugs are also highly addictive – and nearly as readily available. Make sure you mention how dangerous abuse of prescription medication can be, as well as abuse of OTC medicines. Let them know that abusing prescription narcotic painkillers can be as dangerous as abusing heroin. Also, and this is very important, instill the point that prescription medications taken as directed by the person for whom they are prescribed can be very beneficial, but when taken as a means to get high, they have very unpredictable and potentially harmful effects. Research shows that teenagers mistakenly believe that taking prescription medications for nonmedical purposes is safe. They believe that experimentation with such drugs is safer than trying street drugs. Since abuse of medications can be lethal, set clear expectations with your teenagers, letting them know that they are not to take medications under any circumstances without your knowledge and/or permission.

• Lead by example. – Our children are sponges, soaking up impressions about appropriate behavior, habits, beliefs and expectations. One of the most effective tools in parents’ arsenal to prevent abuse of drugs (prescription, OTC, and illegal) is to lead by example. Don’t let your teens see you pop a pill every time you have a slight headache, sore back, or your “nerves” are getting to you. That sends the wrong message: that it’s okay to use a prescription drug to make everything feel better. In fact, many prescription opioids are only intended for short-term use, and they’re not supposed to take all the pain away, just to ease the most severe pain. But, back to the lead by example recommendation – let your teens see that you are responsible about taking prescription medications. Keeping careful inventory, disposing of expired and/or unwanted medications, only taking prescription medications as prescribed, and “walking the talk” shows your teens important modeling behavior.

What to Do If Your Teen Gets in Trouble

Despite following all the precautions, having open and candid dialog, there may be situations where your teen gets in over his or her head regarding prescription drugs. It may be that they were at a party and someone slipped something into a soda or bottle of water. It could be that they followed the rest of the group and experimented with someone’s mother’s tranquilizer or a relative’s ADHD medication.

You may get a phone call from a concerned friend. Or, you may see warning signs in your teen such as lethargy, inability to concentrate, poor motor movement, glazed eyes, vomiting, increased heartbeat, increased body temperature, or other symptoms. Remain calm. Ask your teen, if he or she is coherent, what they took, if they know it. If not, ask what was going on in general, including whether or not others took something in a pill form. If you’ve kept an open line of communication with your teen, you’re likely to get an honest answer. The first thing to do, depending on the substance ingested and the severity of the symptoms, is to contact your doctor, Poison Control Center, or take your teen to the hospital. The prescription and/or street drug and alcohol needs to get out of your teen’s system – and the sooner, the better.

After the drug(s) have been purged, take steps to trace the incident back to the source. Who is responsible for the drugs being at the scene? Was it covert or overt? When you have the names, contact the parents of the individual(s) who supplied the drugs. Chances are your teen isn’t the only one affected. One suggestion is to band together with other concerned parents to present a united front on the issue. It’s also a good idea to insist that your teen stay away from the teen or teens involved in supplying the drugs. Be prepared for a little resistance on this, however, especially if the teen(s) are popular. Once again, you are the parent. It’s up to you to be the one in charge.

If the prevalence, use and abuse of prescription and/or street drugs and alcohol continue, get professional help in the form of counseling for your teen. Prescription drug abuse, if caught early, can be treated successfully. Residential treatment centers or outpatient facilities should be carefully screened to ensure that they specialize in treating teen addictions. Check all credentials and licensing, and inquire about insurance coverage, length of stay or duration of treatment, and any special financing, grants or scholarships available.

To locate a treatment facility for substance abuse (including prescription drug abuse), visit the SAMHSA Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator, or call them at 1-800-662-HELP.

Finally, never give up on your teens. They look to you for guidance and need you when things get tough (and when they’re fine). As parents, use your unconditional love for your teens to give them the best possible preparation for life. Be a good example, and be there for them always.