Hooked on Pills: What Parents Need to Know About Prescription and OTC Drug Abuse

Arianne Powell, a chemical dependency counselor at SageWalk the Wilderness School, has some strong advice for parents of adolescents: “More teens than ever before are abusing prescription and over-the-counter drugs. It’s time to take precautions in your own home. You could be providing your children with something that could kill them.”

In the state of Oregon, where the acclaimed SageWalk wilderness program is located, 8 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds have admitted to using prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, according to the most recent reports by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA, November 2006). That is compared to 6.5 percent of teens in California, 8 percent in Washington, and 7 percent nationwide. Of those young people using or abusing drugs, either illicit or over-the-counter, 39 percent need but aren’t receiving treatment.

Hospital admissions for treatment of prescription drugs like codeine, hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone increased 9 percent between 2004 and 2005, and more than 300 percent since 1995. “Based on these findings, we can anticipate a growing demand over the next several years for treatment services that address prescription drug misuse,” said SAMHSA Administrator Terry Cline, Ph.D.

And substance abuse experts like Arianne Powell confirm that Dr. Cline’s prediction is already coming true. “We are seeing an unprecedented number of students who are hooked on prescription and OTC medications,” says Powell. “Sixty-eight percent of SageWalk’s students who are admitted with chemical dependency issues abuse prescription and/or OTC drugs. Of these, 44 percent admit they stole the drugs from their own family or friends’ families.”

The most common scenario, according to Powell, is teens stealing pills from grandparents, aunts, and uncles who only receive the occasional visit and don’t know to be prepared. Many parents consistently keep medications in the home, but because they don’t use them regularly, they’re less likely to notice a few pills missing or if they’ve run out. Teens know their parents only use the medications occasionally and won’t notice if four or five pills are missing each month. The cycle continues as parents continue to refill their prescriptions without safeguarding their medicine cabinets or monitoring the number of pills in each bottle.

What Parents Don’t Know Can Hurt Them

While most parents try to stay informed about what’s happening in their children’s lives, many have no idea how prevalent and insidious prescription and OTC drug abuse really is. Of course, even well-informed parents can overlook the warning signs or forget to be vigilant in monitoring their teens.

Powell recalls one teenage boy who attended SageWalk’s wilderness program years ago that had developed a severe OxyContin habit. His substance abuse problem had reached the point where taking prescription pain pills wasn’t enough – he had begun smoking the drug several times a day and even freebasing it off of tinfoil. Though the seriousness of his habit made an impact on Powell, the most shocking fact was that his parent was a narcotics officer.

And this teen is not alone. Powell sees wilderness students whose parents are policemen and firefighters who suffered from serious accidents that required prescription pain pills. Because these parents had so many other concerns – recovering from their accident, getting back to good health and back to work, and so on – they weren’t watching closely enough to stop their children from developing dangerous drug habits.

The Most Popular Prescription and OTC Drugs Among Teens

According to Powell, one of the most abused over-the-counter drugs is dextromethorphan (DXM), an antitussive (cough suppressant) drug found in many over-the-counter cold and cough medicines. With over 125 types sold in most grocery stores, teens can easily buy their own cough syrup without drawing unwanted attention. And it takes only one box or bottle at a price of $5 to get high.

“With OTC drugs, teens don’t have to stash paraphernalia or cover their trail. If they forget to throw away the bottle, the worst thing that happens is mom thinks they have a cold,” Powell explains. “Because there’s less sneakiness and fear of getting caught, it somehow feels less wrong, less dangerous. But just because you can buy it over the counter doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

Other favorite OTC medications among teens include Dramamine and motion sickness pills, diet pills, aspirin, and any kind of sleep aid (such as Tylenol PM or Ambien). With most of these drugs, it only takes 10 pills to get high, which means the average teen can get high four times off just one box.

Powell says the most common prescription drugs abused by teens include pain relievers or muscle relaxers (such as OxyContin, Vicodin, or Demerol), diet pills, attention deficit (ADD/ADHD) medications like Adderall or Ritalin, stimulants, and sleep aids (such as Valium or Xanax).

Since teens often can only take one or two pills from each bottle without parents or family members noticing, they will enhance the high by combining many different types of pills. And because different types of medications have different potencies and side effects (some are strong hallucinogenics, some are uppers, and others are downers), there is greater potential for overdose or adverse reactions.

“What’s crazy is kids have no idea what they’re taking,” states Powell. “They are combining synthetic opiates that are just like heroin with diet pills that are pharmacologically related to meth. Misusing these drugs can lead to dependence, addiction, and even death, and yet kids, and even some parents, think they are safe.”

Part of the problem, according to Powell, is a lack of education. “Kids know they can overdose easily on heroin, and statistics show they are steering clear of these ‘hard street drugs.’ But they don’t realize that taking 10 diet pills can have the same effect as snorting a line of meth, and that these mixes can be fatal.”

Steps You Can Take Now to Prevent Drug Abuse in Your Family

The first step in preventing drug abuse or dependency, according to Powell, is knowing what to look for when a teen is abusing prescription or OTC drugs. Many of the warning signs are similar to drinking and smoking. They may start hiding things, lying about where they were and what they were doing, or you may notice them pulling away and acting more aloof than usual. Since the side effects of prescription and OTC drugs are so varied (because of the wide variety of types of drugs), Powell advises parents to focus on changes in behaviors.

“Parents are used to looking for money, pipes, cigarette cartons, or behaviors like slurred speech, red eyes, or smelly breath. With prescription and OTC drug abuse, parents are going to have to look much closer at what their kids are buying, stashing in their cars, or throwing away in the trash can,” says Powell.

Powell recommends that parents check their teens’ receipts for suspicious purchases of cold medicine, diet pills, or sleep aids. Also, she says parents should keep track of how many pills are in their medication bottles, place all medicines in a locked box or drawer, or lock prescriptions in the medicine cabinet. If a child spends time with other adults, including family members or friends’ parents, ask them to check their medicine bottles or lock their cabinets as well.

“The message is that parents need to treat pills and cough syrups like they would treat alcohol and other drugs,” states Powell. “Parents used to mark the levels on the vodka bottle to make sure their teen wasn’t raiding the liquor cabinet – the same measures need to be taken with prescription and over-the-counter drugs.”

Most importantly, Powell wants parents to heed the warning that prescription drugs and over-the-counter preparations are incredibly dangerous. Talk to your child about all forms of drug abuse and convey your cares, worries, and expectations. By spending a few minutes communicating with your kids about this topic (on more than one occasion), you send a firm message that you take drug abuse and your child’s well-being seriously.

If your child is experimenting with drugs or alcohol, or if you’re concerned about changes in behavior you’ve noticed in your son or daughter, talk to a professional and get treatment if necessary. Wilderness programs like SageWalk specialize in giving troubled teens a “wake-up call” about the dangers of substance abuse and getting young people inspired to make positive changes in their lives.

“Guarding against prescription and OTC drug abuse is parents’ responsibility,” says Powell. “It’s as easy as locking a cabinet and taking small measures to ensure you don’t become your child’s drug dealer.”

Source: Aspen Education Group