In Love at First Dose: Teens Get in Trouble With Prescription Drugs

People often think of teenage drug addicts as runaways living on the streets of inner city neighborhoods, involved in prostitution and shooting up heroin.

Think again.

Today’s teen addict is often living a comfortable life in the suburbs and using prescription drugs he stole from his family’s medicine cabinet. He is savvy about drugs, having a working knowledge of what different pills look like and how to use them to deal with stress and depression, and to achieve states of euphoria or oblivion. He may buy Adderall from his 8-year-old cousin with ADHD to use during finals weeks. He may steal OxyContin, a powerful prescription narcotic, from his grandmother’s house and use it to get high at parties. He takes Vicodin to relax and Ambien to get to sleep.

Nevertheless, he’s just as psychologically and chemically dependent and just as in need of drug rehab as the teen junkie on the street.

About one in five (20%) American teens have tried prescription drugs illegally, according to the most recent data from the Partnership for a Drug Free America. Teens can more easily buy or steal prescription drugs than cigarettes, beer, or marijuana. In fact, one-third of prescription drug abusing teens simply steal them from home, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

Opiates – chemical cousins of heroin and morphine – are the most popular prescription drugs among teens.

Some prescription drugs, especially narcotics and opiates, are extremely dangerous and addictive. Take, for example, Fentanyl, a painkiller that is legal to use only in hospital settings or for cancer patients. A certain percent of patients die the first time they take it because they cannot tolerate opiates or because their doctor prescribed too much. Fentanyl, like most barbiturates and many narcotics, has a “low toxic to therapeutic range.” This means that sometimes all it takes are a few extra milligrams to cause a deadly overdose, and that even doctors are unsure of what will happen the first time someone uses them.

Teens also can overdose the first time using a new drug because they do not realize they are allergic to a certain drug, or because they have an undiagnosed medical condition such as a weak heart. In addition, many abused prescription drugs and cough medications contain Tylenol and aspirin. At above-medically-recommended levels, aspirin or Tylenol causes damage to the liver, kidneys, stomach, and other vital organs.

Teens even more commonly overdose on prescription drugs when they combine them with other prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and/or alcohol. Teens may experiment at “pharm parties,” where pills are literally passed around like candy in candy bowls. A partygoer may not even know which drug she is taking or in what combinations. For example, benzodiazepines, such as Valium and Xanax, are very popular and commonly available. They can react in a lethal way with alcohol, sleeping pills, and even cold and hay fever medications.

A certain percentage of teens are genetically prone to addictions. These are the ones who fall in love at first dose with narcotics like OxyContin and Fentanyl, and develop deep cravings almost from the start. Another significant percent of teens have problems, often undiagnosed, such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, and depression. They can quickly become hooked on prescription drugs as a way to self-medicate. There is also much new evidence that teens are more prone to addictions than adults are, because the human brain does not fully develop until after age 25.

If you believe your child is abusing prescription drugs, you cannot ignore the situation. Substance abuse puts your child in danger of overdoses, chemical dependency, involvement in illegal activity, and increased risks for automobile accidents and sexually transmitted diseases. Your first step should be to lock up all the prescription drugs in your house. The second step is to seek advice from your doctor or other medical health professional.