Prescription drug abuse by teens and young adults is a significant problem in the United States. According to The Medicine Abuse Project, most young people get the prescription drugs they abuse from people they know. Painkillers, specifically opioids, are the most commonly abused prescription drugs. Understanding the dangers of teen prescription drug abuse and how to prevent it from happening is an important step to ending the opioid epidemic.

Preventing Teen Opioid Addiction

Teen prescription drug abuse is one of the fastest-growing drug problems in the United States. The most commonly abused prescription drugs are opioids or painkillers. Fortunately, some strategies can be used to prevent teen opioid abuse. Helping teens understand the dangers of taking prescription drugs and ensuring proper storage and disposal of medications can help prevent prescription drug abuse among teens.

Dangers of Teen Opioid Use

Opioids are highly addictive drugs that are dangerous when abused. Just because they are prescribed by a doctor does not mean they are completely safe. Even when taken as prescribed, people can still become addicted to them. Teen drug abuse can lead to behavioral and relationship problems, health problems, and even death from overdose.

The dangers of prescription drug abuse include:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Trouble breathing
  • Organ damage
  • Seizures
  • Overdose

In addition to the health problems, prescription drug abuse among teens can lead to relationship problems, poor judgment and diminished academic performance. Drug abuse is also associated with high-risk sexual activity, impaired driving and mental health disorders. Over time, prescription opioid abuse may also lead to heroin abuse.

Prevalence of Teen Opiate Use & Addiction

Approximately 25% of teens have abused a prescription drug at least once. Prescription drug abuse among rural teens is more prevalent than those in urban areas. Opioids are the most commonly abused prescription drugs among teens. While it is becoming more difficult for teens to obtain opioids, nearly one-third of 12th graders reported they are easy to get. Easy access to opioids has contributed to teen opioid abuse. On average, 1756 teens will abuse a prescription drug for the first time each day.

Teens at Risk of Addiction

Almost 50% of teens who reported abusing prescription opioids got them from a friend or relative. Teens at highest risk for abusing prescription drugs are those who have witnessed a family member overdose, have friends or family members who abuse drugs, have a mental illness (such as depression), have acute or chronic pain or have physical health problems.

Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention

There are several strategies to prevent prescription drug abuse among teens. Young people who learn about the dangers of prescription drugs early and often are less likely to develop an addiction. Other ways to prevent prescription drug abuse include secure storage of medications, treating pain appropriately, monitoring medication use, and educating visitors. While the teen brain may be susceptible to addiction, it is also open to learning healthy habits and behaviors.

Educate Teens

Teens who have a strong bond with their parents and whose parents share their disapproval of substance use are less likely to abuse or abuse drugs. Talking about the dangers of prescription drugs is important, especially since many people think they are safe because they are prescribed by a doctor. Prescription drugs can still be dangerous when taken in a way that is different than prescribed or by someone the medication wasn’t intended for. When discussing the dangers and risks of drug abuse, be sure to approach your teen in a way that is honest, open and nonjudgmental.

Store Prescriptions Securely

Safe medication storage is needed to prevent teens from getting access to prescription drugs that can be abused. Prescription drugs should be stored in a secure location out of the reach of children. While children are at risk of accidental overdose from getting into prescription medications, teens may intentionally seek out these drugs. They may want to experiment to see what it is like to get a “high” from the drugs, sell them to friends, or take them because they are addicted. Keep prescription medications in a secure location to remove any temptation.

When medications are no longer needed, they should be disposed of appropriately. Many states have prescription drug disposal programs where unused medications can be disposed of in an environmentally safe manner. Twice a year, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) sponsors National Prescription Drug Take Back Day to promote the safe disposal of prescription medications.

Use Caution when Treating Pain

Many teens are first exposed to opioids through prescriptions. Opioids may be needed to treat pain from an injury, trauma or surgery. Ensuring that your teen is using the lowest dose of a drug possible to treat their pain can decrease the risk of addiction. Alternatives to opioid pain medications should also be considered. Other pain medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil), may be effective for many teens with pain.

Monitor Medication

Monitoring medication use can help prevent drug abuse. Keeping pill counts of prescription drugs and other over-the-counter (OTC) medications that may be abused can help parents identify potential abuse sooner rather than later. Pain medications after surgery should only be needed for a limited period. If medication is needed longer than that, a discussion and evaluation by a medical professional is necessary.

Some OTC medications also carry the potential for abuse. Dextromethorphan, pseudoephedrine and dimenhydrinate are commonly abused by teens. Requests to purchase them without the presence of a cough (dextromethorphan), congestion (pseudoephedrine) or motion sickness (dimenhydrinate) may be cause for concern.

Prepare Family Members Before They Visit

Reminding family members to safely store their medications before a visit can minimize any temptation to use these medications recreationally. Whether in their home or yours, it is always a good idea to remind them to keep their medications in a secure place during the visit. Teens may be curious to see what they may be able to try or may be looking for drugs to fuel an addiction. Family members without children may not understand the dangers of leaving prescription medications sitting around.

Monitor Internet Use

The internet is one source of prescription drugs for teens. Even though buying prescription drugs online is not as common as getting them from family or friends, it is still a problem and very dangerous.

Potential sources to buy prescription drugs online include:

  • Social Media: Illegal sales of prescription drugs may not be directly advertised on social media platforms, but social media allows teens to connect with people who may be selling prescription drugs illegally. Keeping an eye on social media activity and maintaining an open dialogue with your teen may prevent illegal purchases.
  • Craigslist: People have been known to sell opioids on Craigslist. Sellers will use code names for the drugs. Buying drugs on Craigslist is illegal and dangerous. There is no guarantee drugs haven’t been tampered with or that they are what they say they are.
  • The Dark Web: Purchasing drugs from the dark web is extremely dangerous and illegal. Teens who are dealing with prescription drug abuse may be desperate to get drugs and will turn to the dark web if they are unable to find other sources. Many of these sites ship their drugs from foreign countries.

Obtaining prescription drugs from illegitimate sources is illegal. The DEA takes illegal prescription purchases and sales seriously. Getting prescription drugs from the internet can lead to arrest and imprisonment.

What to Do If You Suspect Your Teen is Using Opiates

Being aware of the behaviors associated with drug abuse will help identify teens who may be taking prescription drugs that were not prescribed for them. Early identification of potential abuse can help lead to changes in the home and get the teen help.

Signs of teen drug abuse include:

  • Sudden or extreme changes in appearance, sleeping patterns or eating habits
  • Changes in friends or relationships
  • Irresponsible behavior or poor judgment
  • Poor academic performance
  • Breaking the rules or withdrawing from family activities
  • Presence of medicine containers or drug paraphernalia

If you suspect your teen is using drugs, talk to them. Encourage them to be honest. Focus on the behavior, not the person. Spend time with them. Seek professional help for them if needed.