Danger in the Medicine Cabinet

Drug Addictions Don’t Just Happen on the Street

Bet you’d give anything to not have your teen experiment with marijuana and alcohol. You’d probably be willing to give your right arm if it could prevent your teen from even thinking of trying the more hardcore drugs like crack, cocaine and heroin.

Finding a joint in your son’s room or learning your daughter had a couple of drinks at that party last week may not seem so drastic once you learn of the latest drug craze. Conventional drugs are no longer the only drugs parents have to worry about. Teens are finding other ways to get high. How? By simply looking in the medicine cabinet.

A Parent’s Concern

According to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA), in 2001, almost three million youths between the ages of 12 and 17 used prescription-type drugs non-medically at least once in their lifetime.

Prescriptions like Xanax, Ritalin, Vicodin, OxyContin and Valium are quickly finding their way into schools, being swallowed, chewed, snorted and injected by teens looking to get high. “My friends turned me on to Oxy,” says Amber, a 17-year-old. “It’s no big deal.”

Maybe Amber should get new friends, because it is a big deal. Intended to relieve pain for terminal cancer patients and chronic pain sufferers, OxyContin (also known as Oxy or hillbilly heroin) is a highly addictive drug and has been linked to at least 460 deaths nationwide.

And it’s not the only prescription causing problems either. Prescription drug abuse comes in all forms, from antidepressants, stimulants and anxiety medications to even cough relievers like Tylenol with Codeine.

Teens, like some adults, seem to think that if a medicine is prescribed by a doctor, it must be safe and won’t have any of the harmful side effects usually seen with use of more illicit drugs like crack and cocaine. But that’s where they’re wrong.

Mom, I’m Feeling Kinda Dizzy

“Anyone who abuses prescription drugs always feels that it’s cleaner because you’re not necessarily buying them from a drug dealer in a dangerous neighborhood,” says David Rotenberg, the executive director of adolescent services at the Caron Foundation, one of the oldest and largest addiction treatment providers in the United States. “They may seem safer and cleaner, but in fact, many prescription drugs fall into the same categories as street drugs, and they’re every bit as dangerous.”

Dangerous indeed. Common side effects of prescription drug abuse range from minor annoyances, such as constipation, slurred speech and dry mouth, to much more serious effects, like comas, digestive problems, convulsions, cardiac arrest and death.

Doesn’t seem like such a small thing now, does it? And it gets even worse.

Under the Counter

“Because my mom has panic attacks, there’s always Xanax in the house,” says Casey, 16. “Sometimes I take a few, and me and my friends snort them.”

What Casey is describing may be shocking, but it is very common. Many teens brag about how easy it is to steal a couple of pills from their parents or other family members and either sell them to make a quick buck or use them to get high. In fact, when asked, most teens who abuse prescription drugs say they usually get their drugs from their own home.

Now, before you run to the medicine cabinet and start tossing things out, that’s not the answer. You don’t have to get rid of medications your family needs. You need only to make them less accessible. Carla Jones, the mother of a 16-year-old, says she does this by keeping prescriptions in a locked cabinet in her room. Some parents, on the other hand, believe it’s enough to simply verbally warn their children and threaten punishment if the medication becomes an issue.

Rotenberg feels that isn’t enough. He suggests parents monitor pills by counting them. And he says some parents should take it even further. “Sometimes you need to go as far as taking it out of the home and locking it in your office at work,” he says.

But don’t think that by keeping prescription meds under wraps, you’ve solved the problem. Teens get drugs from friends at school, dealers on the street, other kids who have legitimate prescriptions and even the Internet. So not only do you need to keep medicines out of your children’s reach, you also need to know who their friends are and be on the lookout for signs that may mean your child is abusing drugs.

Signs to Look For

Prescription drug abusers tend to show many signs, both physical and social. Here are a few things you should keep your eyes open for:

  • An abrupt change of behavior;
  • Lack of or increased appetite;
  • Staying home from school or other activities;
  • Neglecting hygiene or appearance;
  • Physical changes like red eyes or runny nose;
  • Track marks (bruises around injection sites);
  • Itching or skin infections;
  • Sweating;
  • Acting angry.

What You Can Do

If you think your teen is taking prescription drugs for recreational purposes, here are a few things you should keep in mind:

1. Don’t blame yourself.

Even though it’s easy to blame yourself and think that you could’ve done something differently, that’s not always the case. “To be brutally honest, there was nothing in the world my parents could’ve said to stop me from experimenting,” says Andi, who as a teen experimented with amphetamines, LSD, marijuana and valiums. “At that stage in my life, the only people who could’ve stopped me were the peers I looked up to.”

2. Don’t accuse.

If you don’t know for sure your daughter is using drugs, don’t accuse her. If you’re mistaken, the bond you share will be broken. Once she feels she’s lost your trust, her home life may become stressful, and she may then turn to drugs. If you suspect your teen is using any kind of drug, be watchful and know the signs and symptoms before you make accusations.

3. Don’t expect your teen to automatically stop.

For those of us who’ve never experimented with drugs, it’s easy to look at the situation and say someone can stop if they really want to. This isn’t so. Once a person’s body has become used to a drug, an abrupt stop can lead to drastic withdrawal symptoms. So don’t expect your teen to stop cold-turkey. It’s best to get him into a treatment center where they’re equipped to deal with withdrawal. It’s the only option to help your teen to get and stay sober.

4. Get advice.

According to Andi, the former addict now working with addicts on a daily basis, the most important thing a parent can do is to get advice. Because parents may blame themselves or be embarrassed, they may choose to keep it bottled up inside. This is not a good thing. Bottling up your feelings will only cause more stress and won’t be good for helping your teen. You are not alone in this. If you don’t feel comfortable or your teen would rather you didn’t discuss the issue with family or friends, there are always other resources for getting advice and seeking counseling. Remember, help may be only a phone call away.

5. Don’t just talk – listen.

If your child tells you how her friends were popping pills at school that day, don’t automatically fly off the handle. Instead, listen. By listening, you keep the lines of communication open and let her know that she can tell you what’s going on in her life without fear of you lashing out. Be sure you do a little more than just listen, though.

Talk with your teens about drugs – both street and prescription drugs. Even though it may not seem like it at times, teens do listen.


If your teen has taken prescription medication and is showing signs of its effects, call the American Association of Poison Control Centers emergency hotline at 1-800-222-1222.

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