Have Frank Talks and Safeguard Medicines to Keep Teens Safe

Establishing an early conversation between parents and teenagers about the dangers of abusing prescription medicines and blocking their easy access to them at home can help stave off a rising trend of teens abusing medicines, says a Harris Health System drug and intervention expert.

In the last decade, teen abuse of medicines like Xanax® and Vicodin® has grown alarmingly high, second only in abuse to alcohol and marijuana, and their prime suppliers, unknowingly, are family and friends, says Dr. Alicia Kowalchuk, medical director, InSight (drug intervention) Program, Harris Health System, and assistant professor, Department of Family and Community Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine.

"Prescription drug abuse is more prevalent in teens than cocaine, heroin or other illegal drugs except for marijuana," she says. "Teens are finding them at home because a parent has medications for back pain or anxiety and leave the meds out in the open or not secured. Or maybe, it’s the child visiting the grandparents, who may leave their medicine out."

Kowalchuk recommends parents talk to their children ahead of time about the dangers of alcohol and drugs, including prescription medicines. Other tips include:
• Secure and monitor drugs in the house by often checking the number of pills left
• Be aware of prescription drugs in the houses that children visit
• Talk to relatives and parents of friends to make sure prescription drugs are secured

Look for signs of drug problems when a child:
• Uses alcohol
• Shows a sudden change in mood or behavior
• Drops performance in school
• Changes peer groups

"Some teens feel that using prescription drugs is less risky because they’re not buying them off the streets," she says. "And they think because they’re prescription medicines, they’ve got to be safer."

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the most popular medicines of abuse include opioids such as OxyContin® and Vicodin®, central nervous system drugs like Xanax® and Valium® and stimulants like Adderall® and Ritalin®. A popular drug among middle schoolers in the Houston area is Xanax®, known on the street as "handlebars," "bars" or "sticks," says Kowalchuk.

In 2009, about 16 million Americans ages 12 and up said they used a prescription drug for a nonmedical reason at least once during the previous year, reports NSDUH.

Prescription drug overdose deaths have risen 11 years in a row and now exceed all illegal drug overdose deaths combined. Among the most abused drugs are products from the family of opioids, particularly hydrocodone like Vicodin® and Oxycontin® used to treat moderate to severe pain, and benzodiazepines like Xanax® and Valium® used to treat anxiety, sleep and seizure disorders.

"Unlike other illegal drugs, prescription drugs can take hours to take effect," Kowalchuk says. "So while teens are chasing their high, they might take more drugs and overdose without knowing."

The reality is that prescription drugs, particularly when mixed with alcohol, can be deadly. Because hydrocodone and benzodiazepine are sedatives, the mixing with alcohol, also a sedative, can slow down breathing leading to coma and/or death.

If parents suspect an alcohol or drug problem with their children, Kowalchuk recommends seeking help from a primary care physician or pediatrician. For information about drug abuse, visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse.