Prescription Drug Misuse

Got a tween at home and ADHD or anti-anxiety pills in your medicine cabinet? The odds of them mixing behind your back are high. A recent University of Michigan study hits home: It looked at 5,185 Detroit-area students. Of those ages 15-19, a jarring 76 percent had misused prescription drugs by age 12 (compared to 35 percent ages 20-24).

What’s going on

Misuse means “taking a drug in a manner or at a dose that was not recommended by a health care professional,” the FDA says. Why? For “faster” results, in some cases. In others, it’s for the “high” – and is abuse. “Parent permissiveness and lax attitudes” over Rx misuse and teens’ “ease of access” at home are at fault, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids adds.

The pre-13 trend is troubling, notes U-M researcher Dr. Elizabeth Austic, whose team focused on kids who’d taken such meds for nonmedical uses. Tweens commonly misuse drugs for pain (vicodin, oxycodone) and ADHD (Adderall), sedatives and anti-anxiety medications, she says.

A big concern is that long-term misuse can turn into abuse. Kids also often mix Rx drugs with alcohol, Austic adds – which, depending on the med, may cause a child to pass out or want more, leading to alcohol poisoning or risky, even reckless actions. “You can really lose touch with reality,” she says. “You can engage in very dangerous behavior and not even know what you’re doing.” There’s also the risk of overdosing, which can minimize or stop breathing or lead to heart attacks, strokes or seizures.

Looking for signs

If you suspect your child is misusing meds, but perhaps denying it, how can you be sure?

Austic says counting pills is a start. Children use drugs prescribed to them but also drugs for their parents. Tracking pills reveals whether they’re disappearing.

Look at behavior, too. Getting into fights and failing classes are some characteristics of misuse. When it comes to ADHD drugs, clues include depression, weight loss, memory lapses, fatigue and mood swings.

Consider what’s going on in their lives, too, like trouble at home or in school or losing friends, the U-M Heath System notes.

Having a talk

The first step is sitting down with your child in a calm way. Tone matters. Remember, yelling tends to stoke tempers – not create a trusting environment conducive to sharing.

It’s important to find out where it began. Children misuse drugs to fit in, curb depression or just see what it feels like, Austic says. Tell your child you’re on their side. But give a dose of reality. Talk about the legal issues they can face. Selling and giving away prescription drugs is illegal, Austic says. Unfortunately, kids often get drugs from classmates and friends.

Throw away pills no longer usable, and keep cabinets closed and locked. “It’s important to use medication as advised,” Austic says. “They are very effective (pills) when used properly.”

Illustration by Mary Kinsora


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