Whether they’re raiding the family medicine chest or attending “pill parties” with their friends, more American teens are abusing prescription drugs than ever before.
According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 1 in 5 teens has abused a prescription medication. Marijuana is now the only illicit substance that is abused more. Because these drugs are commonplace in our society, teens typically have easy access to them.
“They may see family members use prescription medications for legitimate purposes, so there is a misconception that because they are prescribed by a doctor, they are safer than other drugs,” said Dr. Laura Markley, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Akron Children’s Hospital.
Teens also believe their parents wouldn’t be as upset with them for taking prescription medications as they would if they used illegal substances, like marijuana or cocaine.
In reality, abusing prescription medications is just as dangerous as abusing street drugs and they can be just as addictive. Sometimes they may interact with alcohol or other medications, including over-the-counter medications taken for simple ailments like the common cold.
Once thought to be an urban legend, pill parties are all too real. Teens gather together and throw into a bowl whatever pills they can find. Maybe it’s a sibling’s medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or the pain pills dad takes for his back. There could even be some over-the-counter medications, such as Tylenol®, thrown in. The mixture, often referred to as “trail mix,” is then shared among the group.
If a teen becomes sick and goes to the hospital, proper treatment can be delayed because it’s unclear exactly what and how much was taken. The consequences can be serious.
An overdose from prescription medication abuse can result in death, seizures and permanent organ damage, including harm to the kidneys, liver and brain.
“The long-term effects of a short-term bout of poor decision-making can be life-long and devastating,” Dr. Markley said.
Signs your teen may be abusing prescription drugs
Like other drug abuse, the abuse of prescription medication has some telltale signs. If a teen is abusing a stimulant medication, such as those used to treat ADHD, he may appear nervous, paranoid, shaky and sweaty. His pupils will be dilated.
A teen who’s abusing narcotic pain medication may have:
- Nausea, vomiting or constipation
- Watery, bloodshot eyes
- Constricted pupils
- Slowed responses
- Slurred speech
In addition to the physical symptoms of drug abuse, behavioral signs might be present as well, including:
- A sudden change in friends
- Poor grades
- A decline in activities or function
- Missed school
- Increased time away from home
- Excessive tiredness
- Defensiveness or anger
- Not acting like usual self
Dr. Markley noted that if a teen is asking for large amounts of money without coming home with any new clothes or other purchases, it could be a sign she’s using the money for drugs.
On the flip side, a teen who suddenly seems to have a lot of money and is buying a lot of new things might be selling prescription medications, which, due to their popularity, have a high street value.
If you suspect a problem, trust your instincts. Find out what’s going on with your son or daughter and seek professional help.
Even if your teen isn’t abusing prescription drugs, chances are good that he knows someone who is. Talk to your teen about the dangers and keep the lines of communication open. Let him know that if he finds himself at a pill party, he can call you to pick him up without fear of getting into trouble.
Lower the risk for drug abuse by keeping prescription medications in a locked cabinet. If your teen takes prescription medication for a legitimate purpose, urge him to not broadcast that information, so he’s not pressured to share it.