Teens Abuse of Prescription Drugs

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Use of easily available drugs which are common in home medicine cabinets, or asked from friends may pose equal danger to illicit drugs. Its sourcing doubles the risk as these may be perceived as legal and positive ways to cope with medical problems.

There are many ways of which abuse may be committed on the use of drugs and this may include those prescribed by physicians and those that may easily be purchased. Prescription drug abuse maybe referred to as “the use of prescription drugs – most commonly painkillers, sedatives and stimulants – in ways not intended by the prescribing doctor,” (PDFA, 2008).

A study on teen drug use by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America indicated that a substantial “number of teenagers abuse a variety of prescription (Rx) and over-the-counter (OTC) medications to get high,” and these include Rx painkillers, Rx stimulants and OTC cough medications. The ways of which medications can be abused are: swallowing the pills or drink liquids; crushing pills before snorting or smoking the powder, melting or dissolving the medications then injecting them, or mixing them with alcohol and street drugs called “cocktails.” (PDFA, 2008).

The study also pointed out that prescription drug abuse by teens and young adults has become a big problem in the United States involving millions and showed that:

  • 1 in 5 teens has abused a prescription (Rx) pain medication.
  • 1 in 5 report abusing prescription stimulants and tranquilizers.
  • 1 in 10 has abused cough medication,” (PDFA, 2008).

What makes these teens bold enough to use these medications is that they believe these drugs are safe because they have legitimate uses. Many are not aware that use of these drugs without prescription to get high or “self-medicate” could be dangerous or addictive and amounts to using street narcotics or other illegal drugs (PDFA, 2008).

Another study found that about 2,500 youth age 12 to 17 use pain relievers for the very first time. It was also suggested that more teens abuse prescription drugs than any illicit drug except for cannabis. About 2.1 million teen’s ages 12 to 17 were said to have abused prescription drugs in 2006 alone and that among the younger ones between 12- and 13-year-olds, prescription drugs were preferred (SAMHSA, 2007).

With the common notion that these drugs are prescribed or readily available, these teens believe them safe as a way to get high. Even those who may not opt to try illegal drugs or narcotics are prone to abuse prescription drugs. What is also alarming is that only a few parents are talking to them about it. However, teens agree that parental disapproval is an effective means to keep them away from drugs (PATS, 2007).


Commonly Abused Prescription Medications

Many prescription drugs commonly abused are:

Opioids – these are commonly prescribed as effective analgesic or pain-relievers. Properly used opioids when taken exactly as prescribed are safe, reduce pain, and rarely cause addiction. The most common compounds within this class are hydrocodone such as Vicodin, oxycodone such as OxyContin which is an oral, controlled-release form of the drug, morphine, fentanyl, codeine, and others (NIDA, 2008).

CNS Depressants – such as tranquilizers or sedatives are used to slow normal brain function and higher doses are generally used as anesthetics or pre-anesthetics (NIDA, 2008). The 3 groups of CNS depressants based on chemistry and pharmacology are:

  • Barbiturates such as mephobarbital such as Mebaral and sodium pentobarbital or Nembutal. These preanesthetics induce sleep in patients.
  • Benzodiazepines such as diazepam or Valium, alprazolam such as Xanax, and estazolam such as ProSom when prescribed is used to treat anxiety, acute stress reactions, panic attacks, convulsions, and sleep disorders.
  • Recent sleep medications including zolpidem (Ambien), zaleplon (Sonata), and eszopiclone (Lunesta) are commonly prescribed for sleep disorders (NIDA, 2008).

Stimulants — these drugs are prescribed to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Stimulants such as amphetamines (Adderall, Dexedrine) and methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin) induce alertness, attention, and energy with dopamine-increasing effect. It has been shown that stimulants produce a feeling of euphoria (NIDA, 2008).


As with other food and drugs practices and consumption, there are serious health risks related to wrong use of prescription drugs. It has been explicitly pointed out that even a single large dose of prescription or over-the-counter painkillers or depressants cause breathing difficulty and are fatal. Likewise, stimulants can cause hostility or paranoia, or lead to failure of the heart system and even seizures that cause death. Depressants and painkillers, on the other hand, affect motor skills, judgment, and inability to learn even when taken in small doses.

OTC cough and cold remedies when used improperly cause blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, coma, or even death. Teens admittedly mix prescription drugs, OTC drugs, and alcohol unaware of probable respiratory failure and death. For many years now, studies have indicated that prescription and OTC drugs are addictive and it was found that in a 10 year period from 1995 to 2005, admissions for treatment over use of prescription painkillers have increased to more than 300 percent (TEDS, 2006).

Why teens use Prescription drugs

An age of boldness and exploration, it was reported that many teens abuse prescription and over-the-counter drugs to get high, lessen the impact of intimidation, to socialize in parties, escape reality, to experiment, or relieve boredom.

However, there are legitimate and acceptable reasons why teens abuse prescription drugs and these include:

  • To help them cope with stress, depression, or anxiety, or to help them relax in school, home or peer-related anxieties or challenges.
  • To help them deal with pressures such as improvement of school performance by increasing alertness or concentration. Others use them to help control weight gain.
  • For self-medication such as relieving pain or induce sleep (Boyd et al 2005).

Other seemingly practical reasons teens provide for abuse of these drugs is the belief that it is not illegal, such as that of painkillers, less shame attached to using them, fewer side effects than street drugs, and teens also commented that some parents are not alarmed or act indifferent when they see their children use them (PATS, 2005).

Where teens get Prescription drugs

Incidentally, the most common source of OTC and prescription drugs are friends and the family medicine cabinet. A SAMHSA (2007) study reported that more than 70% of people who abuse painkillers get these drugs from family or friends while some abuse their own prescription medicine. In addition, it was pointed out that said drugs are easily available. The SAMHSA study also found that about 40% of 12th graders say that painkillers are easy to get, and more 50% say the same of stimulants.

62% of teens or more than 3 in 5 teens at approximately 14.6 million scout his own home first to get high from prescription or over-the-counter drugs such as pain relievers. About 50% or 11.9 million teens claim they are easy to get through other people’s prescriptions; and about 52% or 12.3 million point that prescription pain relievers are everywhere (PATS, 2006).

47% of teens who use prescription drugs claim to avail then for free from a relative or friend. 10% buy pain relievers from a friend or relative, and another 10 % take the drugs without asking (NSDUH, 2006). Sourced drugs from relatives have include grandparents with prescription drugs (SAMHSA, 2007).

Prevention and recognition of prescription drug abuse

While individuals and parents have a greater role in the situation, it was pointed out that authorities, healthcare professionals, and pharmacists all have roles to prevent abuse of and addiction to prescription medications (NIDA, 2008). Patients are mandated to follow directions for use carefully and that they should be aware of effects and side effects of the medication. They are best advised to inform their doctor or pharmacist if other drugs or supplements are taken to avoid potentially negative reaction with the prescribed medication. While the patient should read all information provided by the pharmacist, physicians and other healthcare providers should screen past or current substance abuse in the patient during routine examination. It should be clear what other medications the patient is taking and asked of the reason why such was taken to provide corrective intervention. Pharmacists should note increases in the amount of a medication needed or frequent requests as these may indicate abuse (NIDA, 2008).


Individuals, parents and authority figures should be aware of the dangers of prescription and OTC drugs not only because these may have the same addictive properties, fatal, and most importantly, easily accessible. It has been widely known that teens who abuse prescription drugs get them from home, friends and relatives, and at times for free.

There is a wrong notion, or fallacious belief that prescribed or easily accessible drugs over the counter are safe, thereby making them doubly prone to be abused. In fact, many teens do not see any risk in using prescription drugs, unaware that they may already be addicted, and actually believe there is nothing wrong with using prescription drugs. It should be made clear to teens that Rx drugs are equally if sometimes more addictive and lead to health problems and even death. It should be clearly pointed out that prescription drugs are addicting and risk of drug dependence and abuse. It can interfere with teens’ ability to learn and succeed in school, socially, and later, as professional and productive individuals.

Parents and family members must keep prescription medications out of teens’ reach and not just leave lying around in the medicine cabinet. It is best that parents discuss with their teens and warn them about unnecessary use of prescription medications. The dangers and potential lethal consequences should be emphasized as equal to use of illegal drugs.


Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 2008.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. [SAMHSA]. (2007).

National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2006, Table 1.5A.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA]. (2007).

National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2006. Office of Applied Studies.

Partnership for Drug-free America, Partnership Attitude Tracking Study [PATS] 2007.

Treatment Episode Data Set [TEDS]. (2006). Substance abuse treatment admissions by primary substance of abuse according to sex, age group, race and ethnicity, 2004.

Boyd, McCabe, Cranford & Young, 2006; CASA 2005.

Partnership for Drug-free America, Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS) 2005.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA]. (2006).

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 2008.

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