Death in the Medicine Cabinet: Your Teen and Prescription Drugs

Ashley, 14 years old, overheard her parents talking about how her brother’s ADHD medicine was making him less hungry. Because Ashley was worried about her weight, she started sneaking one of her brother’s pills every few days, then three times a day.

Sixteen-year-old Alex found an old bottle of painkillers that had been left over from his dad’s back surgery. He decided to try them. Because a doctor had prescribed the pills, Alex figured that meant they would be okay to try.

Scott was a good student whose parents had no idea he was going to school high on prescription drugs. He’d been abusing drugs since he was 13. Percocet, OxyContin, Vicodin, and Adderall were his drugs of choice.

And finally, there’s Laura, who was buying Vicodin and Xanax from a friend’s 17-year-old cousin—in school—in the student center.

What do all these young teenage children have in common? They all died from abusing prescription drugs that are commonly in your medicine cabinet. A toxicology report indicated that Laura had 134 milligrams of Xanax—the equivalent of 67 pills—in her system. Says Laura’s mother, “Police, teachers, and parents are so fixated on street drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and Ecstasy that they are missing the true epidemic, the epidemic of teen abuse of prescription medications.” In fact, this upcoming generation of teens has been given the name “Generation Rx.”

Gil Kerlikowske, the current director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said when he took office three years ago the problem of prescription drug use was not something that was on the public’s mind. It did not take long however, for his office to realize how significant the issue was, based on staggering statistics.

Well over 15,000 Americans have died as a result of prescription drug overdoses, he said. As a result, in April 2009, President Barack Obama released a strategy for dealing with prescription drug use, which brings together state and local governments, along with parents to try and tackle the problem.

“They’re coming right out of our medicine cabinets, and yet these drugs are as addictive and dangerous as any other drug,”said Kerlikowske. And, adding to that statement, “The drug dealer is us.”

So, why are teenagers getting involved with prescription drugs? The main reason is that they are so easily accessible. Teenagers may get involved with prescription drugs in various ways. Most teens have a tendency to feel indestructible and immune to the problems that others experience. Some teens will experiment and stop, while others may continue to use occasionally without any significant problem. The experimental stage can be very dangerous because kids often don’t see the link between their actions today and the natural consequences of their actions tomorrow.

It’s impossible to predict which teens will experiment and stop and which ones will develop serious problems.  Know what your teen is doing and who they are doing it with.  The following are some warning signs of teenagers at risk for developing serious prescription drug dependency:

  • A family history of substance or alcohol abuse
  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feel like they don’t fit in and are popular with the mainstream
  • Frequently sluggish and have difficulty sleeping
  • Aggressive and rebellious attitude toward authority figures

Some things that you can share with your teen about prescription medications are:

  • 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 are similar (both are opiates).
  • Prescription medications are powerful substances.  Medications help sick people and are administered by a doctor.  When prescription medication is not used for sickness and not administered by a professional, it becomes a controlled substance and the impact on the person can be deadly.
  • Many pills look the same and teenagers may get them mixed up. This can cause different reactions in different people due to the body’s chemistry. It is extremely dangerous to take pills that are unknown.
  • Mixing drugs with other substances is very dangerous. Some people have allergic reactions to different chemicals when they are mixed together.

What can you do to help prevent your child from getting involved with prescription drug abuse?  The best thing to do is keep your prescription drugs in a safe place: don’t put them in the medicine cabinet in your bathroom because that is the first place your child will look. If possible, lock them up in a cabinet or safe box. Talk to your teenager and warn them of the dangers of prescription drug abuse. And, the time to do so is now—before your child ends up like Ashley, Alex, Scott, and Laura.