5 Dangers of Teen Self-Medication

In today’s world, everyone from elementary school students to senior citizens use the Internet to research just about anything. One common use of the World Wide Web is to look for health conditions that you might or might not have. Teenagers, who are usually very well-acquainted with search engines and all of the information literally at their fingertips any time of the day or night, are particularly susceptible to the dangers of self-diagnosing and self-medicating a wide variety of physical and mental health issues. In addition, their developmentally appropriate feelings of invincibility can cause them to take unnecessary and dangerous risks when it comes to trying to handle symptoms on their own, even without the encouragement of increased knowledge. Take a look at this list of dangers pertaining to self-medication, and talk it over with your teen.


1. Inaccurate Diagnosis

If your teen is using Dr. Google to diagnose him- or herself with any type of condition more serious than the common cold, this is problematic. First, it’s possible that they have a serious condition that they’re writing off as a simple rash, a minor sore throat, or a muscle ache, when in fact it’s something that should be seen by a doctor. Tell your teen to let you know about any health issues as they come up; while many times mild symptoms are nothing to worry about, sometimes they do warrant a trip to the doctor, and this is something you need to decide.

More commonly, however, an Internet diagnosis will cause your teen to worry that a simple headache or stomach virus is actually something much more serious, such as cancer. This can cause undue stress and anxiety over something minor. In addition, it might prompt your teen to seek out traditional or alternative treatments for an illness that they don’t even have.


2. Using the Wrong Medications

If you recently had migraines, a stomach ulcer, or some other treatable illness, and you still have some of the medication left over, your teen might be tempted to help him- or herself to your meds if they experience a headache or some nausea. The problem is that if the headache is actually caused by a sinus infection and the stomach illness is caused by a virus, those medications are not going to help, and they might even hurt. It’s best to dispose of your medication properly if you aren’t using it anymore to prevent your teen from using it as self-medication later on.

When your teen is having pain or illness that has more than mild, common symptoms, it’s important for them to come to you or another knowledgeable adult so the appropriate medication, if any, can be recommended. A simple headache or a bug bite is easy enough for your teen to try treating with an over-the-counter pain reliever or a dab of hydrocortisone cream, but if it doesn’t help or the condition gets worse, they should let you know rather than resorting to someone else’s prescription medications.


3. A Possible Overdose

Your teen is not an adult, even though their body is the same size and weight as that of an adult. Some medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, are not appropriate for teenagers, and some need to be given in a lower dosage to younger people or to those who have never taken the drug before. A teen looking through your medicine cabinet and choosing a medication to take for whatever type of problem he or she is dealing with could very easily overdose on the medication.

Another potential problem with self-medication is that when the medication doesn’t produce the desired effect (either because it’s the wrong medicine or because it’s not something that would produce an effect quickly), your teen might be tempted to take more of it the next time, which could also result in an overdose situation.


4. Dangerous Complications from Mixing Medications

When a doctor prescribes a medicine for you or someone else, they check to be sure that it’s not going to interact with anything else that you’re taking, whether over-the-counter, prescription or herbal. Your doctor will also ask about your alcohol and recreational drug use to avoid potential problems. As a safeguard, your pharmacist will cross-check all of your prescriptions on file to also look for possible interactions and contraindications. A problem with self-medication is that if your teen were to take a medication (or, worse, more than one medication) that was not prescribed for him or her, there could be unintended and possibly dangerous interactions.

Stress to your teen the importance of never taking anyone else’s prescriptions for precisely this reason. If your teenager tries a medication belonging to someone else and then attends a party and has a couple of beers, there could be a dangerous reaction. There is also the danger of a reaction if your teen is mixing certain herbal remedies.


5. The Chance of Developing an Addiction

Another problem with self-medication is that if your teen were to take medications that are known to be addictive, there’s a very real possibility of developing a substance addiction. This can happen quite easily; doctors often give patients pain medication that they don’t end up needing or using, so the pills can sit in the medicine cabinet just in case symptoms return later. A teen with an injury or some other painful condition could fairly innocently take these pills in place of simple over-the-counter pain relievers and develop an addiction.

Some teens will also seek out pain relievers and tranquilizers or anti-anxiety medications in an effort to achieve a high, not realizing how addictive these medications can be. It’s important to discuss this danger with your teen, whether or not you have these substances in the house, because his or her friends could have access to pills that you don’t know about.


Talking to your kids about drug use and abuse has to include the dangers of self-medication. Part of staying healthy as an adult is taking control of your own medical needs, and that includes going to the doctor regularly and when you think you’re having a physical or mental health issue. Encourage your teen to start taking on this responsibility without resorting to self-diagnosis or trying other people’s medications for conditions that they may or may not have; it’s a skill that will serve them well as they enter adulthood.


Further Reading