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Prescription Drug Dangers

Although teens are turning away from street drugs, now there’s a new threat and it’s from the family medicine cabinet: The abuse of prescription (Rx) and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs.

Parents and caregivers are the first line of defense in addressing this troubling trend.

What’s the problem?
Teens are abusing some prescription and over-the-counter drugs to get high. This includes painkillers, such as those drugs prescribed after surgery; depressants, such as sleeping pills or anti-anxiety drugs; and stimulants, such as those drugs prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Teens are also abusing over-the-counter drugs, such as cough and cold remedies.

Every day 2,500 youth age 12 to 17 abuse a pain reliever for the very first time. More teens abuse prescription drugs than any illicit drug except marijuana. In 2008, more than 2.1 million teens ages 12 to 17 reported abusing prescription drugs. Among 12- and 13-year-olds, prescription drugs are the drug of choice.

Because these drugs are so readily available, and many teens believe they are a safe way to get high, teens who wouldn’t otherwise touch illicit drugs might abuse prescription drugs. And not many parents are talking to them about it, even though teens report that parental disapproval is a powerful way to keep them away from drugs.

What are the dangers?
There are serious health risks related to abuse of prescription drugs. A single large dose of prescription or over-the-counter painkillers or depressants can cause breathing difficulty that can lead to death. Stimulant abuse can lead to hostility or paranoia, or the potential for heart system failure or fatal seizures. Even in small doses, depressants and painkillers have subtle effects on motor skills, judgment, and ability to learn.

The abuse of OTC cough and cold remedies can cause blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, coma, and even death. Many teens report mixing prescription drugs, OTC drugs, and alcohol. Using these drugs in combination can cause respiratory failure and death.

Prescription and OTC drug abuse is addictive. Between 1995 and 2005, treatment admissions for prescription painkillers increased more than 300 percent.4


1.Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA].  (2009).

National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2008


3.Partnership for Drug-free America, Partnership Attitude Tracking Study [PATS] 2007

4.Treatment Episode Data Set [TEDS]. (2006). Substance abuse treatment admissions by primary substance of abuse according to sex, age group, race and ethnicity, 2004.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Prescription Drug (Rx) Abuse

Painkillers are drugs commonly prescribed for pain and are only legally available by prescription.

Painkiller abuse can be dangerous, even deadly, with too high a dose or when taken with other drugs, like alcohol. Short-term effects of painkiller abuse may include lack of energy, inability to concentrate, nausea and vomiting, and apathy. Significant doses of painkillers can cause breathing problems. When abused, painkillers can be addictive.

Brand names include: Vicodin, Tylenol with Codeine, OxyContin, and Percocet.

Depressants, or downers, are prescribed to treat a variety of health conditions including anxiety and panic attacks, tension, severe stress reactions, and sleep disorders. Also referred to as sedatives and tranquilizers, depressants can slow normal brain function.

Health risks related to depressant abuse include loss of coordination, respiratory depression, dizziness due to lowered blood pressure, slurred speech, poor concentration, feelings of confusion, and in extreme cases, coma and possible death.

Brand names include: Klonopin, Nembutal, Soma, Ambien, Valium, and Xanax.

Stimulants, or uppers, are most commonly prescribed for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but they are also used to treat a variety of conditions such as asthma, respiratory problems, obesity, and sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. When taken in higher doses, these drugs can produce euphoric effects and counteract sluggish feelings.

Health risks related to stimulant abuse include increased heart and respiratory rates, excessive sweating, vomiting, tremors, anxiety, hostility and aggression, and in severe abuse, suicidal/homicidal tendencies, convulsions, and cardiovascular collapse.

Brand names include: Concerta, Dexedrine, and Ritalin.

Steroids are used to medically treat people with abnormally low testosterone levels or symptoms of body wasting, as is the case with cancer patients. Abuse of steroids is often related to physical appearance, such as a desire to build muscle or change body shape.

While health effects vary by individual, they can include liver cysts and cancer, kidney cancer, jaundice, severe acne, and hair loss.

Ongoing Teen-Parent Communication
No loving relationship can exist without communication. Teens believe they have valuable things to say and, when a parent listens genuinely, it helps self-esteem and confidence. The most important thing to remember when it comes to talking about difficult subjects like drinking and drugs is that it’s not a five-minute “talk” — it’s about building an ongoing dialogue. As your children grow up, they will need more and more information, so start early and build on the conversation as your teen matures.

Virtually all parents in America (98 percent) say they’ve talked with their children about drugs; however, only 27 percent of teens (roughly one in four) say they’re learning a lot at home about the risks of drugs, according to a national study by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA).

There aren’t enough hours in the day. Sometimes it’s frustrating how few chances there are to have conversations about drugs with our children. In our busy culture, with families juggling the multiple demands of work, school, after-school activities, and religious and social commitments, it can be a challenge for parents and children to be in the same place at the same time.

Yet the better you communicate, the more at ease your teen will feel about discussing drugs and other sensitive issues with you.

Here are some tips:

  • Be absolutely clear with your kids that you don’t want them using drugs. Ever. Anywhere. Don’t leave room for interpretation. And talk often about the dangers and results of drug and alcohol abuse. Once or twice a year won’t do it. Get more specifics on setting the rules.
  • Be a better listener. Ask questions – and encourage them. Paraphrase what your teen says to you. Ask for their input about family decisions. Showing your willingness to listen will make your teen feel more comfortable about opening up to you.
  • Give honest answers. Don’t make up what you don’t know; offer to find out. If asked whether you’ve ever taken drugs, let them know what’s important: That you don’t want them using drugs. Get the facts on drugs by visiting the Drug Information section.
  • Use TV reports, anti-drug commercials, or school discussions about drugs to help you introduce the subject in a natural, unforced way. Get more specifics on using teachable moments.
  • Don’t react in a way that will cut off further discussion. If your teen makes statements that challenge or shock you, turn them into a calm discussion of why your teen thinks people use drugs, or whether the effect is worth the risk.
  • Role-play with your teen and practice ways to refuse drugs in different situations. Acknowledge how tough these moments can be. Get more specifics on using role-playing.

Source: The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign’s Behavior Change Expert Panel

Shelby Prevention is pleased to join Drug Free Action Alliance and honorary chair, and national sports icon, Clark Kellogg to share the message; Parents Who Host, Lose The Most: Don’t be a party to teenage drinking.