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Teens and Prescription Drugs

When taken as directed, prescription drugs can prevent and cure diseases. When used without a prescription, or beyond what a doctor recommends, they can cause serious physical and mental health problems.

A growing number of American teens are using prescription drugs to get high. Many researchers consider prescription drug abuse an epidemic in its proportions. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, new substance abusers ages 12 and older use prescription drugs more than any other illegal substance--over 6 million U.S. citizens in 2010. Also in 2010, nearly 1 in 5 high school seniors abused a prescription medication that was not prescribed to them. 

Some teens fake symptoms to get a prescription or take someone else’s pills. Some mix medication with alcohol, or take more than the recommended dose of their own medication. Any of these instances of misuse can cause serious, even fatal consequences, including overdose, addiction, seizures, stroke, and cardiac arrest.

Many young people abuse prescription drugs because they believe they are safer than street drugs and legal, but they can be just as dangerous if taken improperly.

Dangerous doses

A risky activity among some teens is known as “pharming.” Teens trade and mix prescription medications, then take a mix of pills, often with alcohol or cough medicine, in the hope of getting high. Some teens take several pills at a time. Others swallow them by the handful, often not knowing which medications they are combining. Fifty thousand teens, ages 12 to 17, who got high this way were counted among the 1.2 million Americans treated in emergency rooms in 2009 for drug-related medical emergencies. This is an increase of almost 100 percent in only a five-year period. 

Open market

Prescription drugs are free and easy to find in parents’ medicine cabinets. Teens can also get them from school friends who have prescriptions for them or who have stolen them from relatives.

Another source where teens can get prescription drugs is on the Internet through illegal websites that do not require a prescription or a medical evaluation. Other websites provide information about how to get high using certain prescription drugs by themselves or in combinations.

Many teens are unaware that getting prescription drugs online or on the street without a prescription is illegal and can lead to arrest.

Reasons for use

Teens abuse prescription drugs for many reasons, including boredom, a desire to escape their problems, or simply to get high.

Talking with teens about healthy ways to cope with their challenges can help them deal with stress or unhappiness in productive ways.

If you believe your child could be using prescription medications for nonmedical reasons, speak with your child's health care provider or a mental health professional. Prescription abuse, especially if it involves addictive drugs, is hard for people to beat on their own. Most abusers need the help of a substance abuse counselor to get clean.

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