Teens & Young Adults

Teens on Prescriptions and OTC

Teens on Prescription Drugs

Prevalence of prescription drug abuse among teens.

Prescription medications are quickly becoming teens' drugs of choice. Though teen illicit drugs use has declined in recent years, more and more young people are turning to prescription drugs to get high. In fact, each day an average of 2,000 teenagers age 12 to 17 use prescription drugs for the first time without a doctor’s guidance.

In 2008, nearly 2 million youth aged 12 to 17 abused prescription drugs, with 1.6 million abusing prescription pain medications. That makes painkillers among the most commonly abused drugs by teens after tobacco, alcohol and marijuana. Of the 14 most commonly abused illicit drugs amongst high school seniors, 8 are prescription medications. In order, they are:

  • Vicodin
  • Amphetamines
  • Tranquilizers
  • Cough medicine
  • Adderall
  • Sedatives
  • OxyContin
  • Ritalin

NIDA’s 2010 Monitoring the Future Study showed that 2.7% of 8th graders, 7.7% of 10th graders and 8.0% of 12th graders had abused Vicodin and 2.1% of 8th graders, 4.6% of 10th graders and 5.1% of 12th graders had abused OxyContin for nonmedical purposes at least once in the year prior to being surveyed.

How teens acquire prescription drugs.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse’s 13th annual survey on attitudes about drug abuse reported that it’s easier for teens to acquire prescription drugs than beer. CASA found that 54% of teens who admitted to abusing prescription drugs say they got them for free from a family member or friend. Sixty percent of teens admitted that drugs were sold, used or kept at school.

Effects and risks of prescription drug abuse.

Many people underestimate the risks associated with the use of opiates, like Vicodin or OxyContin or stimulants, like Adderall or Ritalin; but, in reality prescription medications are very similar to drugs like cocaine or heroin.

All types of prescription drugs can cause serious damage to users, especially when combined with other substances or when used in high doses. For example, long-term use of opioids or central nervous system depressants can lead to physical dependence and addiction. Opioids can cause drowsiness, confusion, constipation and, depending on dosage, depress breathing. Central nervous system depressants slow brain functioning, cause confusion and lead to poor judgment. If combined with alcohol or with other medications that cause drowsiness, they can slow heart rate and respiration to dangerous levels. Taken repeatedly or in high doses, stimulants can cause anxiety, paranoia, dangerously high body temperatures, irregular heartbeat, seizures, weight loss and insomnia.

Preventing teen prescription drug abuse.

To prevent teens from acquiring prescription medications, parents need to keep track of their medications, limit teens’ access to medications and throw out old or unused medications.

Talking to teens about the risks of prescription drug abuse is also critically important. Studies show that teens whose parents talk to them on a regular basis about the dangers of using drugs are 42% less likely to use drugs than teens whose parents don’t talk to them about drugs.

Signs of teen prescription drug abuse.

Indicators of prescription drug abuse include behaviors such as taking higher doses than prescribed; seeking prescriptions from more than one doctor; “losing” prescriptions so further prescriptions must be written; stealing, forging or selling prescriptions; excessive mood swings; and appearing unusually energetic or sedated.

Treating prescription drug abuse.

The treatment of prescription drug dependence typically involves both behavioral and pharmacological interventions.

Usually, the first step in treating prescription drug dependence is to slowly decrease dosage and begin the detoxification process. However, since the withdrawal symptoms from prescription drugs can be quite severe (especially when detoxing from central nervous system depressants), professional supervision is recommended.

Once the detoxification phase is complete, most treatment plans begin behavioral therapy, such as individual counseling, group counseling, family counseling, contingency management, community reinforcement, cognitive-behavioral therapy or psychotherapy. Most behavioral treatments teach patients strategies to deal with cravings, avoid triggers, function without drugs and cope with situations that could potentially trigger relapse.

Pharmacotherapy is often delivered in conjunction with behavioral therapy. Several medications are available for treating prescription opioid addiction, in particular. Nalextrone, for example, discourages use by preventing addictive drugs from activating pleasure receptors in the brain. Other drugs, such as methadone and buprenorphine, reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Currently, no pharmaceutical treatment exists for the treatment of prescription stimulants (Adderall, Concerta, etc.).

Prescription drug addiction treatment programs should always be comprehensive, addressing all the patient’s needs and characteristics, not just those associated with addiction. Comorbidities and other social, psychological and physical issues should be taken into account.

Over the Counter Drug Use

Prevalence of teen over-the-counter drug abuse.

While use of illicit drugs has decreased over the years, use of over-the-counter (OTC) medications has increased. From 1999 to 2004, there was a seven-fold increase in reported cases of overdoses related to the abuse of dextromethorphan (DXM), for example, the ingredient most commonly found in over-the-counter cough and cold medications. Most of these cases involved 15 and 16-year-olds. Overdoses of acetaminophen, an analgesic painkiller found in DXM-based remedies, reportedly cause more than 56,000 emergency room visits a year.

Teens seek OTC drugs for the highs and dissociative states they produce, and can easily obtain them via the family medicine cabinet. Teens’ common belief that it is safer to use OTC drugs than illicit drugs also contributes to rampant abuse.

Signs of teen OTC abuse.

Teens may exhibit various behavioral changes when abusing over-the-counter drugs, including moodiness, staying up late, difficulty getting up in the morning and changes in friends. Teens who are abusing OTC’s will often visit Internet drug sites that explain how to obtain and use OTC drugs to get high and raid the family’s supply of medications.

Dangers and effects of OTC abuse.

Effects of over-the-counter drugs vary greatly, but each can cause death if used incorrectly. Mixing OTC drugs is particularly dangerous, as incompatible ingredients produce severe side effects such as nausea, dizziness, a dangerous drop in blood pressure, hallucinations, seizures, an irregular or fast heartbeat, brain damage and buildup of toxins in the body that can damage the heart or liver.

Treating teen OTC drug abuse.

Addiction treatment for over-the-counter (OTC) drugs varies depending on the type of drug one has abused. Since most over-the-counter drugs are abused by teenagers, family involvement is essential to the treatment process.

The first step in an effective treatment program is to assess the needs of the patient. In addition to their physical addiction, behavioral, social, scholastic, familial and health factors should be taken into account when designing a treatment plan.

Once a comprehensive, holistic addiction treatment plan is in place, patients usually begin the detox process. Withdrawal symptoms vary depending on the type, duration and severity of addiction to over-the-counter drugs and can be very difficult for patients to endure. Medically monitored detox is recommended, especially since severe symptoms can occasionally be prevented or managed with medication.

The next step in treatment is usually some form of behavioral therapy, which teaches patients how to cope with cravings, avoid situations that might trigger use and deal with potential relapses. It also addresses underlying issues, such as depression, anxiety, learning disabilities or multiple addictions.

Once addiction treatment is complete, an aftercare program or follow-up plan should be established to prevent relapse.

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