Most Teens Unaware of Prescription Drug Dangers

What's this?Today’s teens seem to be generally aware of the consequences of “hard core” drugs, such as heroin or cocaine. Unfortunately, they are not as savvy when it comes to the issues related to prescription drug abuse and newly created drugs not yet banned.

Prescription Pain Relievers

Fifteen million Americans abuse prescription drugs. The most commonly abused drugs are opioids, a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin as well as legal prescription pain relievers, such as oxycodone, codeine and morphine. Every day in the United States, 2,500 youth (12 to 17 years old) abuse a prescription pain reliever for the first time. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, total opioid overdose deaths nearly quadrupled between 1999 and 2014, rising from 8,050 to 28,647.

Despite these dire statistics, recent studies suggest that most teenagers underestimate or do not know the real risks associated with abusing prescription drugs. For example:

  • According to a study published in the Spring 2015 issue of the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, the majority of teens surveyed assumed that drugs prescribed by a doctor must be safe. As a result, youth were more willing to abuse prescription drugs as compared to drugs they considered harmful, such as cocaine or heroin.
  • A 2015 survey of college students commissioned by the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy and the Christie Foundation found:
    • 16% said they had used opioid painkillers prescribed for someone else at some point in their lives,
    • 30% said opioids are easy to get, and
    • 37% admitted they would not know where to get help if they or a friend experienced an overdose.
  • A survey conducted by the Foundation for a Drug-Free World found that almost 50% of teens believe that prescription drugs are much safer than illegal street drugs.
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) 2010 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey found that past-year non-medical use of prescription pain relievers for high school seniors was about 1 in 12 for Vicodin and 1 in 20 for OxyContin.


Parents should make their teen aware of the following:

  • The definition of prescription drug abuse is taking a medication in any way not prescribed by your doctor. That includes:
    • taking larger doses than your doctor prescribed,
    • continuing to take the drug after your prescription is done,
    • using the drug for reasons other than prescribed,
    • using a drug prescribed to someone else, or
    • snorting or injecting ground-up pills.
  • Abusing prescription opioids has serious risks including vomiting, mood changes, decreased ability to think, addiction, and even coma or death.


Prescription Stimulants

Prescription stimulants, such as Ritalin and Adderall, are medications that are used to treat people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). There is a rumor going around schools that these medications will help students learn quicker, focus better, and provide extra energy to study longer. Many students, stressed out from academic pressure, fall prey to these rumors, hoping these drugs will help them to improve their grades. Just like prescription painkillers, teens think these medications are safe to use because they are prescribed by doctors. Most students report prescription stimulants are easily obtained.

While prescription stimulants do promote wakefulness, studies have found that they do not enhance learning or thinking ability when taken by people who do not actually have ADHD. What youth do not realize is that taking these drugs without a prescription can lead to delirium, psychosis or even heart failure.

Emerging Drugs

Unfortunately, new street drugs are constantly being developed because it is such a profitable business. The problem is that it takes awhile for the government to catch up with the steady influx of new drugs. A drug can be on the street for months before the government is able to recognize it and go through the process to make it illegal. However, because the drug is NOT officially listed as illegal or banned, teens believe that these drugs must be safe, and they feel it’s ok to use them.

A perfect example is an increasingly popular synthetic (i.e. man made) opioid, known as Pink or U-47700. This newly developed drug is eight times stronger than heroin, and is being shipped into the United States from China and other countries. It can be ordered legally on-line and delivered to your home for as little as $5 plus shipping. In forms ranging from pills to powder to mists, Pink is killing thousands of people across the country. The government has recognized the problem and is taking steps to have the substance banned.

Prevention Steps

Few parents ever believe that their teen could fall prey to a drug problem, but it happens far more often than we can imagine. Parents are the best line of defense in preventing a teen from abusing drugs. Here are a few steps you can take to help prevent substance abuse:

  • Talk to your teen. Teens need ongoing education about the dangers of prescription drug abuse and emerging drugs. Most schools do not cover this type of material, so YOU need to inform your teens. You should debunk the myths of prescription drug use as discussed above. You might use media coverage of drug abuse as a way to start a conversation.
  • Teach healthy coping mechanisms. Teens are vulnerable to trying drugs when they are stressed out. Be proactive and teach your child healthy coping skills, such as those identified in our earlier blog Developing Coping Skills in Teens.
  • Seek professional help for mental health problems. Teens who are struggling with mental health issues, like an anxiety disorder or depression, are also vulnerable to turn to prescriptions for help. If you suspect your teen has a mental health issue, seek professional help immediately.
  • Role model healthy prescription use. Make it clear that everyone should only take medications prescribed to them and discuss the importance of taking medication according to the prescription label, and then, follow through on your words. That means you should not give your friend, who has insomnia, one of your prescription sleep aids, or give your relative with a hurt back one of your prescription pain killers.
  • Store medicine safely. If anyone in your household is prescribed a medication that is commonly abused, keep it locked up. This simply removes the temptation that any teen – yours or your teen’s friends that visit – might feel.
  • Stay current on emerging drugs. Pay attention to health news to remain knowledgeable about emerging drugs and keep your teen informed.

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