April 9, 2013
Parents often worry about what their teens do when they leave the house. But what’s inside the home can also pose a grave danger. Prescription medications kept in unlocked cupboards and medicine cabinets—including painkillers, sedatives, and stimulants—can be a risky temptation for teenagers and adolescents. The CDC reports that in 2010, more than 25 percent of U.S. high school students surveyed said they took a medication that was not prescribed for them.
“We’ve become a society that expects to be pain free,” says EDC’s Sally Fogerty. “Opioid pain relievers are being prescribed at record levels. When these drugs are misused by adolescents and teens, they can lead to other drug abuse. They can be lethal.”
Fogerty directs the Children’s Safety Network (CSN) at EDC, which is funded by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau. CSN works with states and agencies to help communities address critical public health problems, such as addressing prescription drug abuse, which has become a national priority.
Q: Why are teens at risk of abusing prescription drugs?
Fogerty: Many teens falsely think that because prescription medicines are prescribed by a physician, inexpensive, and widely available, that they are safer than illicit drugs. But they’re not. Also, opioids can be a gateway to heroin use. Prescription painkillers, particularly opioids (e.g., codeine or oxycodone), weren’t always widely available. Now they’re everywhere. They’re in parents’ and grandparents’ medicine cabinets, within reach of adolescents. Kids get their wisdom teeth out and are prescribed painkillers.
Middle-aged adults have been the focus of prescription drug abuse prevention because they overdose at the highest rate. But the problem doesn’t always start in adulthood. We need to understand who is prescribing the drugs and how adolescents are getting them. EDC is working with states and other groups to better understand and address this issue.
Q: What is being done?
Fogerty: Non-medical use of prescription drugs is up 80 percent since 2000, and overdose deaths from prescription medication are now the leading cause of accidental death among adults ages 45 to 54, so there is significant interest among a majority of states to prevent prescription drug abuse. Many states have prescription drug monitoring programs that track the prescribers of these medications, as well as the frequency and the dosage. This is to help prevent “doctor shopping” and to shut down so-called “pill mills.” We’ve organized a multistate learning circle to help states and agencies learn about effective prevention strategies, share resources, and coordinate their efforts.
Q: How can adults keep prescription drugs out of the reach of kids?
Fogerty: We need to educate parents and grandparents, as well as adolescents, about the dangers of prescription drugs. Parents, mentors, school personnel, pediatricians, and others need to talk with adolescents about the risks with misusing prescription drugs. If families don’t use all of their medications, or they have expired medications, they should properly dispose of them so they don’t end up in the wrong hands or polluting the water supply.
Some communities have permanent prescription drug drop-off sites while others participate in annual drug take-back events. People can call their police, fire, or trash collection departments or their pharmacies to find out locations. If we can intervene with adolescents, we have a chance of stopping them before they go down the path of addiction.