Generation Rx? Teens and prescription drugs

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By Angela Sandlin, Pharm.D.

Prescription drugs are the fastest growing substance abused by teenagers.  According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, one-in-five teens reported having abused a prescription drug, and there are now, for the first time, as many new abusers (12 and older) of prescription drugs as there are of marijuana.  The National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimates 2.1 million teens abused prescription drugs in 2005.  This drug abuse is deadly.  Research by the Centers for Disease Control shows that nearly all poisoning deaths in the United States are attributed to abuse of prescription drugs- and that deaths from prescription drug abuse have more than doubled in the past five years.  

Why are teens choosing prescription drugs to abuse? First, these medications are easily taken from medicine cabinets of parents or other relatives, then ingested, sold or given “free” to friends.  At “pharm” or “bowling” parties, various stolen pills are poured into a bowl and randomly taken by guests.  

Second, teens wrongly think that prescription drugs are “safer” to abuse than street drugs.  Misused prescription drugs are every bit as dangerous.

What do teens want when abusing prescription drugs? Some take prescription drugs to get high.  Others are abusing drugs to “treat” anxiety or boredom, or in an attempt to improve athletic or academic performance.  We are a “pill-popping” society, and our teens have adopted our “just take a pill” mentality.

Which prescription drugs are teens abusing?  Pain relievers such as Percocet, Oxycontin (oxycodone), and Vicodin/Lortab (hydrocodone) are misused because these drugs can give a feeling of well-being or euphoria.

Ritalin (methylphenidate), Adderal and Dexedrine are stimulants.  Xanax (alprazolam)and Valium (diazepam)are anti-anxiety drugs that also can produce euphoria.  Certain over-the-counter cough medicines with dextromethorphan can also be misused to produce a “high.”

What are the dangers of prescription drug abuse?  Prescription drugs, if misused, have the potential to be highly toxic, causing injuries such as permanent brain, liver, kidney or heart damage.    Prescription drug abuse can be fatal — either directly due to the drug, or as a result of accidents that occur while under the influence.

Sadly, in recent years, celebrities Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson and Anna Nicole Smith have, in their deaths, borne witness to the fatal consequences of prescription drug misuse.

Prescription drugs can be physically and/or psychologically addicting, creating an insatiable desire for more drugs and higher doses.   Prescription drug abuse may also lead the user to try street drugs.    

What do we do about prescription drug abuse by our teens?  First, don’t be the unwitting supplier of your prescription drugs to our kids and community.  Prevention starts in your medicine cabinet.  Monitor – inventory your medicine cabinet. What drugs do you have and how many tablets of each?

Secure your medicines.  Locks keep medicines away from younger children, teens, their friends, visitors, and service workers entering your home.

Dispose of outdated or unused medicines.   It is a bad idea to “save” old medications “just in case.” (If you are in pain severe enough to need that old pain medication that was prescribed for some other reason, you really need to be seen by a physician.  Taking old pain medication could mask the pain of a serious illness that needs other treatment).

Some outdated medications are no longer effective; some break down to form toxic chemicals.
To dispose of medications, remove the medicines from the containers, crush the tablets and mix with cat litter or used coffee grounds.  Place the mixture in a plastic bag, seal the bag, and throw the bag in the trash.   Remove all identification such as patient name and prescription numbers from empty prescription containers to protect your medical information and prevent someone from retrieving the empty bottle from the trash and obtaining a refill from the pharmacy.  Throw empty containers in the trash.  

Next, continue to educate yourself, then communicate the information about the dangers of prescription drug abuse to teens with whom you have contact.  Our teens are certainly getting endlessly repeating messages about the “coolness” of abusing drugs from the Internet, movies, celebrities, and even friends.  These “messengers” have agendas, but our teens’ success, well-being and safety is not part of those agendas.  It had better be on ours.  Repeat your message on the dangers of prescription drug abuse as often as you can. Lives depend on it.

Angela Sandlin is director of pharmacy at Baptist Hospital Northeast.