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May 2010, Volume 40 Number 5 , p 42 - 46


  • Susan Simmons PhD, RN, ARNP-BC


ALCOHOL AND ILLICIT drugs aren't the only drugs that teens abuse—according to a recent survey, one in five teens abuses prescription medications. Over-the-counter (OTC) medication abuse is also high. Many teens think that these medications are "safe" because they're readily found in the home, legally available, and their parents are using them.1Substance use by teens can impair brain maturity and inhibit learning, thinking, and judgment.2 Along with the potential for addiction, teens don't understand the short- and long-term consequences of indulging in these dangerous substances. Besides addiction, abuse of prescription and OTC medications can lead to liver and kidney damage, seizures, withdrawal syndromes, respiratory depression, and death.Recognizing the signs and symptoms of substance abuse in teens is vital in getting them the treatment they need. Teens often feel invincible, and it's up to the adults around them—parents and healthcare providers—to help them understand the long-term ramifications of substance abuse. Knowing which drugs are most often misused by teens is the first step in recognizing abuse.Prescription medications commonly abused by teens include amphetamines, sedatives, barbiturates, and opioids (see Dangerous medications).3 The latest data show that the use of these medications for nonmedical reasons ranges from nearly 3% in eighth graders to about 15% in high school seniors.4Pseudoephedrine and dextromethorphan, drugs commonly found in OTC cold and cough medications, top the list of substances abused by teens.4 Pseudoephedrine can be made into methamphetamine, and dextromethorphan has opioid-like properties in high doses. A 2006 survey showed that 4% of eighth graders and 6% of high school seniors abuse OTC cold medicines that contain dextromethorphan.3 Even though these numbers seem small, dextromethorphan abuse has multiplied tenfold from 1999 to 2004.4Teens may take these readily available medications

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