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A Disturbing New Trend: More Teens Getting High on Prescription and OTC Drugs

by Anita Gurian, PhD

Several year-end surveys of teen drug use in 2006 report good news—they show a decline in overall alcohol, cigarette, and illegal drug use by teenagers. But, as fashions change, so do the substances which teenagers use to get high. A recent study shows that a small but growing number of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders reported using prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin, as well as over-the-counter cough medicines. Over-the-counter medicines are legal, cheap, and easy to get. Most contain dextramethorphan, a component of cough suppressants that has hallucinogenic effects at high doses. Although prescription painkillers are a little harder to get, family medicine cabinets are usually good sources.

"The intentional use of prescription and over-the-counter medicines is a pervasive problem that has become a far too normal part of many teenagers' lives," according to Stephen J. Pasierb, President and CEO, Partnership for a Drug-Free America (The New York Times, 1/8/07).

Although the number of teens who reported that they used medicine and over-the-counter drugs is not high compared to the number of teens who use illegal drugs, the trend is of concern, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Many teens believe that if medications are obtainable in a pharmacy they cannot be dangerous, but they may not realize the danger when they overdose or combine them with alcohol.

What parents can do

  • Look for signs such as slurred speech, dilated pupils, sweating, high temperature, dry mouth, blurred vision, hallucinations, delusions, nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, numbness in fingers and toes, red face, loss of consciousness
  • Watch credit card charges
  • Be aware of packages that are mailed to your home
  • Note empty medicine bottles
  • Store your own medicines in a secure place and throw away outdated medicine
  • Monitor the internet sites your teen accesses. There are sites on which teens give each other information on the combinations that are most potent.

Prevention, starting at an early age, is critical.

  • Remember you are your child's most important role model
  • Talk openly about the harmful effects of drug and alcohol abuse
  • Clearly state what you expect your teen to do when confronted with substance abuse.
  • Help teens find alternate ways of reducing stress.
  • Keep track of where, with whom, and what your teen is doing after school and other free times.
  • Point out and discuss examples of substance abuse in movies, television, and other media.