Parents of toddlers know to keep an eye on prescription and non-prescription medications. But abuse of these medicines, especially opioid-based painkillers, is a growing problem for teenagers (and adults), too.
- Opioid overdose is now the second leading cause of accidental deaths overall in the United States, and in some states has surpassed motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of death.
- Most of the opiods abused are in the form of prescription pills diverted away from legitimate medical uses (though originally prescribed by a medical or dental office.)
- 1 in 5 high school students admitted abusing prescription drugs.
Opioids are synthetic versions of opium, and include most of the medications in the important class of painkillers called narcotics. These include common brands like Oxycontin, Percocet, Lortab, Tylenol #3, and many others. A generic form, hydrocodone, is the most commonly prescribed medication in the United States. Forms of these medications are also found in prescription cough medications, and are sometimes used as sleeping aids. People may not realize that multiple prescriptions may all contain these similar ingredients, increasing the chance of unintentional overdose. The risk of death is further increased when they’re combined with alcohol or many other medications used to treat anxiety or sleep problems (including Ambien, Xanax, or Valium.)
There are other potentially dangerous drugs in the medicine cabinet that may be tempting to teenagers. ADHD medications like Ritalin or Adderall are commonly abused in high school and on college campuses; medicines that include laxatives and diuretics are sought by teens looking to lose weight. We’re talking about serious, dangerous stuff here, especially when taken secretly, away from the monitoring of a physician or even the watchful eye of a parent.
What should parents do?
Avoid bringing narcotics into your house unless they’re essential to treat a serious cause of pain. If you do need narcotics, fill a prescription for a small supply, and keep track of it. Narcotics should rarely (if ever) be used to treat cough.
Try things like massage, heat, and physical therapy for especially chronic pain. If medication is needed, try to rely on non-narcotic pain relievers — these can be very effective, especially when taken before pain becomes severe.
Destroy unused prescriptions. The safest way to do this is through incineration (you can ask your doctor to toss them into their “biohazard” bags), or by sealing them in a bottle along with something inedible like motor oil and disposing it properly. It’s not a good idea to throw prescription pills in the toilet or sink.
Prescriptions (especially narcotics, tranquilizers, and ADHD medications) need to be hidden or locked up. Teens and young adults will often “scope out” medicine cabinets when visiting other homes — they’re usually private, in the bathroom. Teens know what pills to nab for personal abuse or to sell.
Most important of all: set a good example. Use prescribed medications the way they’re supposed to be used, and don’t monkey around with saving pills or using any medication off-handedly. Talk with your children frankly about what medications are for and how they can all have serious side effects. Protecting teens isn’t just about locking up the pills. It’s also about helping them develop their own sense of respect for these medications, so they continue to make good decisions throughout their lives.
- Roy Benaroch, MD