The fastest-growing drug problem in the United States isn’t cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamines. It is prescription drugs, and it is profoundly affecting the lives of teenagers.
According to National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) DrugFacts, prescription drug misuse and abuse is when someone takes a medication inappropriately (for example, without a prescription). Sadly, prescription drug misuse and abuse among young people is not an insignificant problem. According to National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) data on youth and young adults, more than 5,700 youth in 2014 reported using prescription pain relievers without a doctor’s guidance for the first time.
A common misperception is that prescription drugs are safer or less harmful to one’s body than other kinds of drugs. However, there is a range of short- and long-term health consequences for each type of prescription drug used inappropriately:
- Stimulants have side effects in common with cocaine, and may include paranoia, dangerously high body temperatures, and an irregular heartbeat, especially if stimulants are taken in large doses or in ways other than swallowing a pill.
- Opioids, which act on the same parts of the brain as heroin, can cause drowsiness, nausea, constipation, and, depending on the amount taken, slowed breathing.
- Depressants can cause slurred speech, shallow breathing, fatigue, disorientation, lack of coordination, and seizures upon withdrawal from chronic use.
These impacts can be particularly harmful to a developing adolescent brain and body. Our brains continue to develop until we reach our early- to mid-twenties. During adolescence, the pre-frontal cortex further develops to enable us to set priorities, formulate strategies, allocate attention, and control impulses. The outer mantle of the brain also experiences a burst of development, helping us to become more sophisticated at processing abstract information and understanding rules, laws, and codes of social conduct. Drug use impacts perception—a skill adolescent brains are actively trying to cultivate—and can fracture developing neural pathways. Additionally, as our brains are becoming hardwired during adolescence, the pathways being reinforced are the ones that stick. If those pathways include addiction, the impact may lead to life-long challenges.
As with any type of mind-altering drug, prescription drug misuse and abuse can affect judgment and inhibition, putting adolescents at heightened risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, misusing other kinds of drugs, and engaging in additional risky behaviors.
Here are several ways to minimize prescription drug misuse and abuse among young people:
- Education: One in four teenagers believe that prescription drugs can be used as a study aid and nearly one-third of parents say that they believe that attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medication can improve a child’s academic or testing performance, even if that child does not have ADHD. Parents, children, and prescribers must be educated on the impact of prescription drugs on the developing brain.
- Safe medication storage and disposal: Two-thirds of teens who misused pain relievers in the past year say that they got them from family and friends, including their home’s medicine cabinets, making it important to safeguard medicine in the home, according to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Safe storage and disposal of medications diminish opportunities for easy access.
- Prescription drug monitoring: Many people are calling on doctors and pharmacies to better monitor how (and how often) drugs are prescribed. Doctors more readily hand out prescription painkillers than they did ten years ago, and, according to some sources, pharmacists do not habitually check prescription drug registries, which help to identify potential over-prescribing and misuse.
In addition, educating adolescents and their parents about the risks of drug misuse and abuse can play a role in combating the problem. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), created the website NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse to educate teens, their parents, and teachers on the science behind prescription drug misuse and abuse. Developed with the help of teens to ensure relevance, NIDA scientists created a site that delivers science-based facts about how drugs affect the brain and body so that young people will be armed with better information to make healthy decisions.
Publications and Resources
Access the following for more information on misuse and abuse of prescription drugs among teens:
- Drug Facts: High School and Youth Trends from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (PDF | 722 KB)
- Safeguard Medicine in Your Home at the Medicine Abuse Project
- SAMHSA News: A Better Path, Drug Treatment Courts Offer Hope for Youth - 2013 (PDF | 2.1 MB)
- Teen Medicine Abuse: An Epidemic from the Medicine Abuse Project
Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.