Over-the-counter drugs, especially cough and cold medications, are becoming very popular as recreational drugs for teenagers as young as 3 to 16 years old.
“As parents, relatives, teachers, and concerned adults, we spend a great deal of our time assisting teens in circumventing the challenges that could be detrimental to their lives,” said Tanya Southerland, director of the Going Respectively Against Addictive Behaviors coalition.
“We talk to them about the hazards of underage alcohol use, and the problems associated with abusing marijuana and other dangerous drugs such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. However, teens can face dangers from within the home as well.”
According to the National Council on Patient Information and Education, every day 2,700 teens try a prescription medicine for the first time. These drugs are variously used to get high, fall asleep, stay awake or deal with stress. Teenagers use these medications in the same ways their peers abuse alcohol, tobacco, and other narcotics to fit in and cope with their lives.
Data collected from a 2008-09 Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services School Health Survey revealed only 9 percent of sixth-graders had abused OTC medications in their lifetimes. This number increased to 22 percent by eighth grade and peaked at 24 percent in twelfth grade.
By comparison, only 3 percent of sixth-graders had abused prescription drugs in their lifetime. The number increased to 26 percent by the 12th grade. Seniors in high school had the highest 30-day usage rate at 15 percent. Thirty-day usage refers to those who have used a controlled substance within the last 30 days. These same middle school and high school students rated the availability of the drugs. Approximately 79 percent of the sixth-graders stated it would be “very hard” to obtain medication without a prescription. By twelfth grade, the number dropped to only 28 percent.
“Teens believe that because prescription and OTC medications are legal, they are safer than their illicit counterparts, making these medications the statistical (illegal) drug of choice after marijuana,” Southerland said. “Prescription drugs are also relatively easy to obtain, with 56 percent of people who use Rx medications nonmedically saying they obtain these drugs from friends and relatives. This means drugs are freely shared, or taken from medicine cabinets or other accessible places within the home.”
One of the most commonly used OTC medications teens are abusing is cough and cold remedies. The side effects include a narcotic “high” or euphoria similar to the effects of alcohol. Many of these products are widely available and can be purchased at supermarkets, drugstores, and convenience stores. Many OTC drugs intended to treat headaches, sinus pressure, or cold/flu symptoms contain the active ingredient dextromethorphan (DXM). They are the ones teens use to get high.
“When taken in high doses, DXM can produce the narcotic ‘high’ that abusers crave, but it can be extremely dangerous in excessive amounts,” Southerland said.
DXM is not the only OTC drug teenagers abuse. The list also includes diet pills, sleep aids, motion sickness medication, laxatives, diuretics, and emetics (chemical compounds administered to induce vomiting).
“All of these are legal, cheap, and very easy to obtain, often without any parental oversight. While the abuse of over-the-counter ephedrine used is the making of methamphetamines has been controlled, other substances have come along to replace it as the drug of choice for a quick fix,” Southerland said.
Added Southerland, “How do we protect the rights of those who need these medications to relieve their ailments, while also preventing their abuse? We have to sound the alarm to parents and adult caregivers, that prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications are a source of grave concern. Teens are abusing these drugs, and some are even dying because of it. Adults need to lock up their meds, keep track of their medication quantities, and learn how to properly dispose of unused medications.
Southerland said adults can be a part of the solution.
“Talk to your teen about the risks of taking any medication without a doctor's supervision. Prescription and OTC drugs are powerful and, when abused, can be just as dangerous as street drugs,” Southerland said.
The GRAAB Coalition is committed to educating the community on the dangers of substance abuse, Southerland stated. In the coming weeks, GRAAB will release a comprehensive plan to outline goals and strategies for addressing prescription drugs and over the counter medications abuse in the community. To be a part of the strategic planning and to learn more about the GRAAB Coalition, please contact Tanya Southerland, executive director, GRAAB Coalition at 423-472-5800 or 423-653-9969.
The mission of the GRABB Coalition is to bring together concerned members of the community and service providers to facilitate lowering the misuse of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, as well as other addictive behaviors by providing effective education, recovery, and support for youth, families, and the community.