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What is Prescription Drug Abuse

What is prescription drug abuse?The statistics on teen pain killer abuse are surprising. What types of prescription drugs are abused by teens? Read this article to find out about prevention, effects, and treatment of teen prescription drug abuse.


Basically, anytime a prescription drug is used for non-medical purposes it's considered to be abuse. When used correctly in accordance with doctor's directions, these drugs are beneficial to us. If prescription drugs are abused, these drugs can cause a wide array of problems. These types of prescription drugs alter brain activity and can cause both addiction and physical dependence among other things.

Prescription drug abuse has been on a steady incline in the United States. According to a 2004 study done by SAMHSA, roughly 6.1% of young adults ages 18-25 were currently using prescription medications non-medically. Their 2004 study also showed that "an estimated 2.8 million persons used psychotherapeutics nonmedically for the first time within the past year. The numbers of new users of psychotherapeutics in 2004 were 2.4 million for pain relievers, 1.2 million for tranquilizers, 793,000 for stimulants, and 240,000 for sedatives."(1)

Because prescription drugs are legal, people tend to think that the risks associated with prescription drugs are not as great. This misconception is one of the leading reasons for the increase in prescription drug abuse.

Types of Prescription Drugs Abused by Teens 

Generally, prescription drug abuse falls into three categories.

  • Opioids - These drugs are normally used for pain relief by changing the way our brains perceive pain. These pain killer drugs may include OxyContin (most widely abused), Darvon, Vicodin, Demerol, Lomotil, and Morphine
  • CNS (Central Nervous System) Depressants - Indicative of their name, depressants slow down normal brain function. These are used to treat such things as anxiety and sleep disorders. Drugs may include Nembutal, Xanax and Valium.
  •  Stimulants - Stimulants increase our energy and alertness along with our heart beat and respiration. Traditionally, they are used to treat ADHD, narcolepsy and occasionally, depression. Some common types are Dexedrine and Ritalin.

Effects of Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

Effects vary depending upon the type of prescription drug abused.

  • Addiction - uncontrolled, compulsive use of the drug. 
  • Physical dependence - the body becomes used to having it in it's system and depends on it to function. 
  • Drug tolerance - As the body becomes used to having the drug in it's system, it will end up needing more of the drug to have an effect. 
  • Drug interactions - Occurs when taken together with substances such as alcohol or other types of drugs. These interactions can be fatal.
  • Withdrawal - When the body becomes physically dependent on the drug, it will go into a state of withdrawal if suddenly stopped or the amount is reduced significantly. Withdrawal symptoms (ex. nausea, depression, sleep disorders, diarrhea, sweating, anxiety, seizures, respiratory failure) range in severity and can even be life-threatening. For this reason, withdrawal should be supervised by a medical professional to help reduce/control these effects as much as possible. 
  • Respiratory depression - Can cause death if severe (opioids)
  • Impaired balance (depressants) 
  • Impaired memory (depressants) 
  • Increase in body temperature (stimulants) 
  • Irregular heartbeat (stimulants) 
  • Paranoia (stimulants)

Treatment for Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

If you suspect your teen may be abusing prescription drugs, there are two main types of treatment that are widely used. Talk to the appropriate healthcare professional about which course of treatment is best for the particular type of drug abused.

  • Behavioral treatment - may involve individual, group or family counseling to try to correct the behaviors that lead to abuse. Behavior modification schools, residential treatment centers or specialty boarding schools work with teens on issues such as  prescription drugs abuse.
  • Medical treatment - usually used in conjunction with behavioral therapy and uses other medicines to curb the drug abuse.

Prevention of Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

Most importantly, we as parents need to be aware and keep all prescription drugs out of reach of our teens. A large amount of responsibility also falls on both the physicians and pharmacists of the teens. If a teen comes in to get a prescription for any of these medications, the doctor should get a full past history from the teen and his/her parent. They need to be aware and look out for any signs of the teen's prior drug abuse/treatment. Pharmacists need to keep an eye out for teens who are requesting large amounts of a particular prescription drug or who needs many refills. These should be clues that prescription drug abuse may exist.

Ultimately though, it is the responsibility of the teen to respect these drugs and use them only as medically necessary.


1. nida.nih.gov/drugpages/prescription.html
2. drugabusestatistics.samhsa.gov

Related Article: Drug Use Effects - Teen Drug Abuse >>

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