What Parents Should Know About Prescription Drug Use

Prescription drug abuse is a rapidly increasing problem, especially among 12- to 17-year-olds. According to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, the number of Americans who illegally use or abuse prescription drugs now exceeds the number of Americans who abuse cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants and heroin combined. The study also found that the number of teens who abuse prescription drugs has nearly tripled since 1992. By learning what parents should know about prescription drug use, you can take the first steps to helping a child at risk or suffering from a prescription drug addiction.

What are some signs my child is abusing prescription drugs?

* Unexplained mood changes/mood swings
* Unpredictable behavior
* Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
* Missing money, prescription drugs or cough medicines from the home
* Slipping grades
* Loss of interest in activities he or she once enjoyed
* Unexplained drowsiness, confusion, nausea, constipation, slowed breathing (all signs of opioid use)
* Nervousness, insomnia, loss of appetite, weight loss, increased energy (all signs of stimulant use)
* Fatigue, poor concentration, impaired coordination and memory, slowed breathing (all signs of depressant use)

What are the most commonly abused prescription drugs?

Prescription drugs of all types can be abused, but the most commonly abused prescription drugs fall into three categories:

* Opioids. Opioids are medications normally prescribed to treat pain. Common opioids are Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone), Darvon (propoxyphene), Diluadid (hydromorphone), morphine, fentanyl, codeine, and other related medications.

* CNS depressants. CNS depressants are medications prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. They are tranquilizers or sedatives that slow normal brain function and include barbiturates (e.g.; Mebaral and Nembutal), benzodiazepines (e.g.; Valium and Xanax), and sleep medications such as Ambien, Sonata and Lunesta.

* Stimulants. Stimulants are medications prescribed to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. These include amphetamines (e.g.; Adderall and Dexedrine) and methylphenidates (e.g.; Concerta and Ritalin).

Pain relievers such as OxyContin and Vicodin are the most commonly abused prescription drugs by teens. Dextromethorphan (DXM) is also commonly abused and is found in many over-the-counter cough and cold medicines.

How are prescription drugs abused?

The most common method for abusing prescription drugs is by taking the medications orally.

* Opioids can also be abused by crushing the pills into a powder that can be snorted or injected.
* CNS depressants can be combined with other prescribed drugs and illicit drugs to counteract or enhance their effects.
* Stimulants can be crushed into a powder that’s dissolved in water and then injected.

What are some of the dangers of prescription drug abuse?

Abusing prescription drugs can lead to addiction and even death. Combining opioids with alcohol, CNS depressants with substances that cause drowsiness (such as alcohol and over-the-counter cold and allergy medications), and stimulants with antidepressants (including some over-the-counter cold medicines) can all result in death.

What are some facts and statistics on teens and prescription drug abuse?

* Prescription drugs are the most commonly abused drug among 12- to 13-year olds and the second most commonly abused drug, after marijuana, among older teens. (NSDUH, 2006)
* The abuse of prescription painkillers by young adults rose more than 12 percent between 2002 and 2007. (SAMHSA)
* Nearly one in five teens report abusing prescription drugs not prescribed to them. (PATS, 2006)
* The number of poison deaths caused by prescription medication abuse increased 62.5 percent from 1999 to 2004. (CDC, 2007)
* One-third of teens believe there’s “nothing wrong” with using prescription drugs every once in a while, and 4 out of 10 teens agree that prescription drugs are safer to use than illegal drugs, even if they’re not prescribed by a doctor. (PATS, 2006)
* More than half of teens agree that prescription drugs are easier to get than illegal drugs. (PATS, 2006)
* Three out of 10 teens believe that prescription pain relievers are not addictive. (PATS, 2006)
* Five out of the top six drugs abused by high school seniors in 2006 were prescription drugs or cough/cold medicines. The top six drugs, in order, were: marijuana (31.5%), Vicodin (9.7%), amphetamines (8.1%), cough medicine (6.9%), sedatives & tranquilizers (6.6% each). (MTFS, 2006)

What can I do to prevent prescription drug abuse in my teen?

* Safeguard all drugs at home by monitoring their quantities and controlling access to them. This includes throwing away and hiding in the trash any unused medications and asking friends and family to do the same.

* Discuss the dangers of prescription drug abuse with your child. According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, teens are 50 percent less likely to use drugs if they learn the risks of drug use from their parents.

* Set clear rules about the proper way to take medications, including following the doctor’s advice and not sharing medicine with friends.

* Take action if you see any signs of abuse or sense that something is wrong. Don’t wait or the abuse could turn into an addiction.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.