Today’s youth use fewer drugs than the generations that preceded them, and general drug use among teens has declined even further since the pandemic. Furthermore, about a quarter of 10th graders and over half of all surveyed 12th graders recognize and understand that certain prescription medications, particularly narcotics (painkillers), can be dangerous.
Overdose deaths continue to rise, but that’s because teens who do use illicit drugs are, unfortunately, often sold counterfeit pills or contaminated drugs laced with fentanyl, an exceptionally potent narcotic with a much higher risk of overdose. While fewer teens use prescription drugs than some years ago, those who do are much more likely to suffer immediate and even fatal consequences than previous generations (NIH).
It’s important to prevent our teens from misusing prescription drugs. It all begins with the right education.
What Are the Risks of Teen Prescription Drug Abuse?
Prescription drugs are controlled substances refined, produced, and distributed by pharmaceutical companies. All prescription drugs go through rigorous drug trials before becoming commercially available, and their production and storage must adhere to strict guidelines set by the FDA.
While there can still be side effects and risks associated with taking prescription medication, prescription drugs only hit the market after years of testing to determine and precisely quantify most of those risks.
This, in practice, makes prescription drugs “safer” than random designer drugs or contaminated pills with similar effects, such as stimulants, depressants, or painkillers. But there are limits to that safety.
As a rule of thumb, the illegal use of a prescription drug is always unsafe. This means that if medication wasn’t prescribed to you, then it isn’t safe to use. The same goes for exceeding prescribed dosages. One of the reasons prescribed medications are controlled and require the prescription and authorization of a doctor and pharmacist is the fact that these medications can be dangerous.
Some prescription drugs pose a risk of addiction, as well as long-term health complications following excessive use. Painkillers, such as oxycontin, are a common example. Excessive use of opioids and depressants such as alprazolam can slow the heart and respiration functions to a crawl and cause respiratory arrest and death. Even “moderate” recreational use over long periods can result in cognitive and physical damage, such as kidney damage, liver damage, heart disease, and memory problems.
In teens, all these issues are exacerbated. Teens are generally smaller than grown adults, and their brains and organs are still in active development. Misuse of prescription medication can result in a greater risk of addiction than in grown adults, as well as a greater risk of long-term health complications.
Not all prescription medications are addictive, of course – for example, anti-depressants and anti-psychotics do not have any addictive properties. But many other prescription medications can be addictive, such as:
- Opioid painkillers (codeine, morphine, oxycodone)
- Amphetamines (Adderall)
- Other stimulants (methylphenidate, such as Ritalin)
- Certain cough medication and nasal decongestants in higher dosages (pseudoephedrine and dextromethorphan)
While prescription drugs can be dangerous in higher doses or when misused, the preconception that a pill or bottle is safer than a street drug is another great cause for concern. It isn’t difficult to replicate the look and packaging of a prescription drug, and many dealers who sell prescription drugs knowingly or unknowingly distribute counterfeit pills.
To maximize profits, many of these pills are laced with more potent drugs to induce some form of high while minimizing the cost of production. In recent years, this drug of choice has become fentanyl, a readily available synthetic opioid with high levels of potency and a high risk of causing overdose deaths.
If you’ve found an unknown pill in your teen’s room, ask them where they got it from. Teens are generally limited in their purchase options, which means most teens buy drugs from people they meet through peers at school or in parties, or from the internet. If you aren’t sure what kind of pill you’ve found, consider consulting a pharmacist.
Signs and Symptoms of Teen Prescription Drug Misuse
Prescription drug misuse can result in different physical and behavioral changes depending on the drug being used. For example, benzodiazepine or barbiturate abuse can result in respiratory depression, oversleeping and drowsiness, and loss of concentration at school or at home. Teens abusing benzodiazepine are at risk of a dangerous withdrawal process when they stop. Benzo withdrawal is one of the few forms of withdrawal that can be fatal, requiring medical supervision.
More generally speaking, you want to look out for:
- Strange and sudden changes in behavior.
- Loss of interest in old hobbies.
- A complete change in peers.
- Problems at school, more behavioral complaints.
- Loss of attention or focus, even during important conversations.
- Lying about where they’ve been or where they’re going.
- Hiding things at home.
- Finding physical signs of drug use (bottles, pills, other substances).
Seeking Help for Your Teen
Treatment for prescription drug misuse begins with guided withdrawal, a long-term plan for avoiding relapses or potential triggers, and an individualized therapy program. Some teens use drugs to experiment, some teens use them to self-medicate, and some teens use them out of boredom or because of other extant circumstances. Treatment programs must take into account a teen’s circumstances, as well as their mental and physical health, to create an itinerary that addresses the factors that affect a teen’s drug use.
In the long term, treatment should transition into communal support and a focus on building long-lasting, healthy relationships between peers and other parts of the community. Teens who are pro-social and feel like they belong are less likely to struggle with mental health problems, including substance use issues. Prescription drug misuse can affect teens for years to come. An effective treatment environment is a crucial part of addressing teen drug use.