Prescription Drug Abuse: Latest Trends and Prevention Tips

A couple of decades ago, parents worried about teenagers using marijuana, cocaine and heroine. Nowadays, parents need to be more worried about what’s in their medicine cabinet.

Latest Research

A new study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that the proportion of all substance abuse treatment admissions of those aged 12 and older involving abuse of prescription pain relievers rose by over 400 percent from 2.2 percent in 1998 to 9.8 percent in 2008. This dramatic increase occurred among nearly all segments of the population regardless of age, gender, educational level and employment status. The Partnership for a Drug Free America’s annual tracking study indicates that 1 in 5 teens has abused a prescription (Rx) pain medication, stimulant or tranquilizer and 1 in 10 teens has abused cough medication. The Office of National Drug Control Policy reports that next to marijuana, the most common illegal drugs teens are using to get high are prescription medications. Pain relievers such as OxyContin and Vicodin are the most commonly abused prescription drugs by teens. For the first time, national studies show that today’s teens are more likely to have abused a prescription painkiller than any illicit drug.

Why Prescription Drugs?

For teens, prescription and over-the-counter medications may have appeal for a couple of reasons.

They are easily accessible. The majority of teens get prescription drugs easily and for free, often from friends or relatives. Teens can raid the medicine cabinets in their own home or the homes they visit, such as friends or grandparents. Kids as young as 12 are trying or using prescription drugs non-medically – to get high or for “self-medicating.” Pharmaceuticals are often more available to 12-year-olds than illicit drugs because they can be taken from the medicine cabinet at home, rather than marijuana which necessitates knowing someone who uses or sells the drug.

They are perceived as safe when compared with street drugs. Many teens think these drugs are safe because they have legitimate uses and are made by drug companies (versus on the street). Many teens do not believe that prescription drugs are addictive. Unfortunately, taking medication without a prescription to get high or “self-medicate” can be as dangerous – and addictive – as using street narcotics and other illicit drugs.

Prevention Tips

There are two major weapons that parents have to combat prescription drug abuse: (1) safeguarding medications and (2) talking to your teens.

Safeguarding medications in your home is a smart way of limiting supply of any possible drugs from your teen and their friends. Put your prescription drugs in a safe place (the medicine cabinet in your bathroom is the first place a teenager will look), and if possible lock them up in a cabinet or safe box. Take an inventory of prescription and over-the-counter medications in your home and pay attention to quantities.

Keeping your medications out of reach is an important step, but don’t forget that your teen can still obtain medications fairly easily at other people’s homes and the drug store. So your most important method for preventing this drug abuse is talking to your child. Set clear expectations with your teenagers, letting them know that under no circumstances should they ever take medications without your knowledge. Here is a list of things that you should tell your child:

  • Pharmaceuticals taken without a prescription or a doctor’s supervision can be just as dangerous as taking illicit drugs or alcohol.
  • Abusing painkillers is like abusing heroin because their ingredients (both are opiods) are very similar.
  • Prescription medications are powerful substances. While sick people taking medication under a doctor’s care can benefit enormously, prescription medication can have a very different impact on a well person.
  • Many pills look pretty much the same, but depending on the drug and the dosage the effects can vary greatly from mild to lethal.
  • Prescription medications, as all drugs, can cause dangerous interactions with other drugs or chemicals in the body.

Pay attention to the things your child talks about with their friends. “Pharming” is a common slang term referring to using prescription drugs.


If you suspect that your teenager might be abusing prescription drugs:

  • Visit Narcotics Anonymous or call them at 1-800-992-9951 to find a meeting in your area.
  • Call 1-800-662-HELP to reach a free 24-hour referral helpline from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Leave a Reply