Prescription Drug Abuse Among Teens

Because teens are undergoing major life changes, they are vulnerable to mental illness. Yet, unfortunately, mental illness still carries a stigma and is rarely spoken about. For this reason, if a teen feels sad, has low energy, and is beginning to lose interest in his or her friendships, he or she might not know about depression and instead take drugs as a means to feel better.


Using substances as a means to manage one’s mood or behavior or inner experience is called self-medicating. Parents should be aware of the behavioral and physical signs of alcohol and drug abuse. This could include drug and alcohol paraphernalia, hangovers, slurred speech, or other behaviors that indicate drug use.


This is especially true if there are prescription drugs in the house. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, prescription drug abuse or misuse by adolescents is second to marijuana and alcohol misuse. The most commonly abused prescription drugs include Vicodin and Xanax. However, When teens get a hold of and use prescription drugs in a way other than how they are prescribed, it is considered abuse. Research indicates that 20% of teens that have abused prescription drugs reported that they did so before the age of 14. Also, 33% of teens believe that using prescription drugs not prescribed to them is okay. Sadly, many teens believe that prescription drug abuse is safer than abusing illicit drugs such as cocaine. However, the abuse of these drugs, particularly by at-risk youth can easily lead to irreparable consequences.


Furthermore, prescription painkillers are an opiate, the same type of drug as heroin. Common forms of opioids, in the form of painkillers, include oxycodone, hydrocodone, diphenoxylate, morphine, codeine, and methadone. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a recent study covering the years 2002-2006 indicates that 7 out of 10 adolescents who are using opioids for non-medical purposes have combined opioids with other drugs and/or alcohol in the last year. Marijuana (58.5% of teens surveyed) and alcohol (52.1% of teens surveyed) were the most common drugs to be combined with opioid use, followed by cocaine (10.6%), tranquilizers (10.3%), and amphetamines (9.5%). Other results of the study include:

  • Teens who reported taking opioids with other drugs were 8 times more likely to report abusing marijuana than non-users of opioids.
  • Teens who reported taking opioids with other drugs were 4 times more likely to report being drunk than non-users of opioids.
  • 24% of teens reported that they usually or always combined the non-medical use of opioids with marijuana.
  • 15% of teens reported that they usually or always combined the non-medical use of opioids with alcohol.


If teens become addicted to prescription drugs and if they later have a difficult time getting more prescription drugs, they may turn to heroin. Since both are opiates, they can produce the same high. Symptoms of using prescription drugs or heroin include red or raw nostrils, needle marks or scars on arms, wearing long sleeves at inappropriate times, and medicinal breath. Physical evidence might include cough syrup, bottles, syringes, cotton swabs, and spoons for heating heroin. Long-term symptoms are loss of appetite, constipation, brain damage, and damage to the central nervous system.


And it’s not only prescription drugs teens might use, they might also use over-the-counter-medications as a means for changing their mood or emotions. For instance, teens frequently abuse cough and cold medications. Certainly adolescence can bring a wide range of experiences, some that include emotions that are difficult to bear. When a teen is faced with anxiety, severe depression, or even psychosis, drugs is often a way to help manage their difficult experience without having to admit that they’re having trouble.


Concern about your adolescent’s mental health and drug use should first be addressed with your teen — fostering open communication goes a long way toward a healthy parent-adolescent relationship. However, if you feel that your child’s use of drugs is severe and you need outside help, contact a mental health professional as soon as possible. Not doing so could mean losing your child’s life.