Today’s teens are part of the “Rx Generation.” According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA),7 million people of all ages used psychotherapeutic drugs for nonmedical purposes in 2006. This included 5.2 million who misused pain relievers, 1.8 million who misused tranquilizers, 1.2 million who misused stimulants, and 0.4 million who misused sedatives. A significant proportion of these are adolescents. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Survey on Drug Use and Healthrevealed that more than 2 million teenagers misused prescription drugs in 2005. According to SAMHSA:
- One in 5 teens has misused prescription drugs.
- One in 3 teens has reported that there is “nothing wrong” with using prescription drugs “every once and a while.”
- One in 3 teens has reported knowing another youth who misuses or abuses prescription drugs.
- Every day, nearly 2500 youths misuse a prescription drug for the first time.
- Prescription drugs are abused by teens more often than cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, and methamphetamine combined.
- Prescription drugs are the drug of choice among 12- and 13-year-olds.
- Girls are more likely than boys to intentionally use prescription drugs to get high.
- Most teens (57%) who use these products admit that they get prescription drugs for free from a relative or friend (47%) or take them from a relative or friend (10%) without permission. An additional 10% buy narcotic analgesics from a friend or relative.
- Adolescents are more likely than young adults to become dependent on prescription medication.
More than 3 million young people in the United States, aged 12-25 years, are thought to have used OTC cough and cold medications nonmedically in 2006. Teenagers, especially 14- to 15-year-olds, act more independently than younger children in making decisions about what to take and when to use nonprescribed medications. The following additional data in regard to the nonmedical use of OTC products found that:
- OTC cough and cold remedies were misused by 4% of 8th graders, 5% of 10th graders, and 6% of 12th graders in the past year;
- From 1999 to 2004, poison control centers reported a 7-fold increase nationwide in the abuse of dextromethorphan, the active ingredient in cough and cold medicine. Most of these cases were among 15- and 16-year-olds;
- Among Hispanic teens,1 in 5 (21%) or about 581,000 teens have taken prescription medications to get high;
- In the same group, 1 in 8 (13%) or about 352,000 Hispanic teens reported abusing cough medicine to get high; and
- Overall, whites were more likely to report having abused OTC medications (6.2%) than blacks (2.5%). Rates were not estimated for Asian Americans or Native Americans.
The challenge for parents is to become aware of the problem, remain vigilant, and to educate themselves about the various means through which their children may be putting themselves at risk with prescription and OTC drugs. Parents may simply not be aware of the consequences of this type of abuse. Despite the increase in parent-teen discussions about the risks for drugs, many parents may not be discussing the risks of abusing prescription and OTC medicines with their children. Only 24% of teens have reported that their parents had talked with them about the dangers of abusing prescription drugs or the use of medications outside of a clinician’s supervision, and just 18% of teens have indicated that their parents had discussed the risks of abusing OTC cough medicine. Prescription and OTC drug misuse often begins innocently with teens “borrowing” medications from each other. Recent research found that approximately 20% of adolescents have shared prescription medications.
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America recommends a 3-step approach: (1) educate; (2) communicate; and (3) safeguard. Parents are encouraged to:
- Educate themselves about which medications can be misused or abused, and learn about the very real dangers and risks of this behavior;
- Communicate these risks to their kids, dispelling the notion that medicines can be safely abused; and
- Safeguard medications by limiting access to those that can be abused, keeping track of quantities, and safely disposing of medications that are no longer needed. Parents should also enlist the support of fellow parents to ensure that they do the same.