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Teen Drug Abuse Declines But Abuse Continues

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

There is good news to report from a national survey of teens on drug use. The survey conducted from 2001 to 2005 indicated that there was a 20 percent decline in illicit drug use. The bad new is that teens are abusing different drugs than in previous years.

images Over 3 million adolescents each year begin using either over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription drugs inappropriately, and pain relievers are quickly becoming a “gateway” drug similar to marijuana. The other alarming statistic is that these drugs account for up to 22 percent of new substance abuse, and many teens report that these “prescription” drugs are readily available in their homes.

During the last five years the parental medicine cabinet has become the easiest place to get “high” just like the liquor cabinet of old. Parents need to be as aware, if not more so, of locking up their medications as well as the liquor. Teens these days would prefer to abscond with their parent’s vicodin rather than a bottle of vodka.

With so many adults now on multiple medications including medications for sleep, anxiety, pain relief, mood disturbances and even attentional issues the family medicine cabinet has a plethora of choices.

Opiods are becoming a drug of choice and about 5 percent of high school seniors reported initiating Oxycontin use in the last year, while 10 percent report having tried Vicodin.

I went to my own medicine cabinet and looked to see what we had available. There was left over pain medication from one son’s wisdom teeth extraction, and another bottle from a different son’s shoulder injury secondary to football. There were also several tablets of sleep medication that is sometimes used for travel and a half used bottle of cough syrup with codeine. Beyond that not much interesting; just vitamins and a few random bottles of Tylenol and Advil. I must admit, I would not know if any of the pain pills went missing, as I really had no idea they were even there.

Many adolescents view the ”miss-use” of prescription medications as being ”safer” than illicit drugs. The misconception that prescription drugs cannot become addictive or lead to the use of other illicit medications is a common problem with teens. It is almost as if their immature brains do not process that these drugs, which were not prescribed for them, can be just as addictive and even deadly as illegal drugs.

Many of my adolescent patients will report “borrowing” a friend or roommate’s stimulant like Ritalin or adderall to pull an “all nighter” and think nothing of this. They also have often reported using narcotics in combination with alcohol, without realizing that this could be deadly. They often don’t even know what they took, as they will just say, “it was the blue pill a friend gave me, and they told me it would help me relax”.

As illicit drug use declines, the discussion with teens regarding abuse of OTC or prescription medications is a reality. Telling our teens about the inappropriate use of pain medications is as important as the discussions regarding marijuana and cocaine.

As parents we must take inventory of our medicine cabinets, keep medications locked up, not just to prevent poisoning in younger children, but also to prevent potential drug abuse among teens. I know of several instances where adult friends have reported medications missing from their bathroom cabinets after their teens had friends over for an evening. I am heading to my own cabinet to do a little New Years throw away (remember to dispose of medications properly too!)

That’s your daily dose, we’ll chat again tomorrow.

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