According to the 2006 Monitoring the Future study, prescription drug use among teenagers is second only to marijuana, and is second to none among 12- and 13-year olds. Every day, an estimated 2,500 teenagers abuse a pain reliever for the first time.
Some people may be surprised to know that prescription drug abuse among teenagers is not a new trend. In fact, studies began revealing increased use of tranquilizers as early as the mid-1980s, and dramatic increases in sedative use from 1995 to the year 2000. It has gotten more attention lately because first-time prescription drug users now occur at the same rate as first-time marijuana users, and teens are now more likely than adults to abuse prescription drugs.
When asked about prescription drug use, about one-third of teens say they feel pressured to at least try them. Others admit they want to get high; it may be a means of escape, a way of relieving boredom, or simple curiosity. Still others say abuse of prescription drugs helps them deal with stress, anxiety, depression, or the pressures of school.
These are the same reasons many teens had for using illicit drugs. They have turned to prescription drugs because they wrongly assume that because the drugs are prescribed by a doctor they're safer.
In the same way that teens may hang out and drink or smoke marijuana, they may also hang out and use prescription drugs. The get-togethers have been labeled "pharm parties" by the media, though few teenagers would call them that, and it over-dramatizes the gatherings.
The media will tell you that "pharm parties" are organized by teenagers for the sole purpose of collecting and ingesting all the prescription drugs they can find. The stories will go on to say that the pills are tossed into a bag or bowl out of which the party-goers grab handfuls to consume, often washing them down with alcohol.
While there's little evidence to support the existence of "pharm parties" as characterized by the media, prescription drug abuse among teenagers is still a growing issue. Teens may not gather with the single intent of swapping prescription medications, but when there's a party, prescription drugs are often involved, especially since they're easier to get than either alcohol or marijuana.
The medications that are misused by teenagers typically come from their own homes. If the teens themselves don't have medications, the parents do. And few parents track their prescriptions well enough to know if a few pills are missing. Teens only have to go as far as their medicine cabinets.
According to a 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 47 percent of teens who abuse prescription drugs got them from a relative or friend, and 10 percent said they took the drugs without asking. A study conducted that same year by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America found that 62 percent of teenagers say prescription pain relievers are easy to get from parents' medicine cabinets and 50 percent say they're easy to get through other people's prescriptions.
A Monitoring the Future Study, also conducted in 2006 by the University of Michigan, found that Vicodin is the most commonly misused prescription drug. Over-the-counter cough medicine comes in second, followed by sedatives and tranquilizers.
All of this information can be overwhelming, and could cause parents to think that prescription drug use is running rampant among adolescents. But here's the good news: Even though use has increased dramatically in the last 20 years, still fewer than 10 percent of teens abuse Vicodin, and fewer than 7 percent abuse cough medicine, sedatives, or tranquilizers. One in ten is still one too many, but it gives a more realistic perspective on the prevalence of prescription drug abuse.
The numbers may be relatively low, but the danger is still real. Parents need to set aside time to talk with their kids about prescription drugs and the dangers of taking medication prescribed for someone else.
Take some proactive steps to safeguard any medications you have at home. Keep them in a cabinet that locks, and keep careful track of how many pills are in a bottle or packet. Track not only your medication, but prescriptions for other family members as well.
If you have unused medication, be sure to dispose of it properly. Some pharmacies will take remainder medications and dispose of them for you. If you do it yourself, hide the medication in the trash or mix it with something people won't want to take, like cat litter or a used baby diaper.
Before you talk to your kids about prescription drug abuse, talk to your doctor or a pharmacist. Get some information about the dangers of abusing medication so that you can communicate the risks clearly to your kids. Knowing the information has come from someone in the medical profession will add weight to your message.