There is nothing safe about being your own pharmacist: Guest Blogger Alexis Barrere RN   

A pink/red cough medicine on a gray/black background.A teen worried about their weight may overhear that their sibling’s ADHD medicines was making them less hungry and choose to started sneaking some of their siblings pills every few days. Or a teen who finds an old bottle of painkillers that had been left over from their dad’s operation may decide to try them or share them with friends, assuming the pills are safe since a medical provider prescribed them. Sometimes parents even give their own prescription medications to their kids. Taking prescription drugs in a way that hasn’t been recommended by a doctor can be more dangerous than people think. In fact, it’s drug abuse. And it’s just as illegal as taking street drugs.

Teens experiment with prescription drugs because they think they will help them have more fun, lose weight, fit in, and even study more effectively. Prescription drugs can also be easier to get than street drugs. Family members or friends may have them, but prescription drugs are also sold on the street like other illegal drugs. A 2009 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that prescription drug abuse is on the rise, with 20% of teens saying they have taken a prescription drug without a doctor’s prescription.

Prescription drugs are assumed to be safer and less addictive than street drugs because are used by family members and friends. The hard fact is that prescription drugs are only safe for the individuals who actually have prescriptions for them. That’s because a medical provider has examined these people and prescribed the right dose of medication for a specific medical condition. This medical provider has also educates on exactly how a medication should be taken and things to avoid while taking the drug, such as drinking alcohol, smoking, or taking other medications. Medical providers are also aware of potentially dangerous side effects and can monitor patients closely for these. Teens and parents need to know that taking drugs without a prescription or sharing a prescription drug with friends or family is actually breaking the law.

Although it mistakenly thought that prescription drugs are more powerful because a prescription needed, it’s also possible to abuse or become addicted to over-the-counter (OTC) medications, too. For example, DXM or dextromethorphan, is the most commonly used cough suppressant in the U.S. DXM is in almost half of all of the OTC drugs sold in the U.S. It’s used in cough syrups, capsules, lozenges, tablets, and gelcaps. A 2008 study found that one in 10 American teenagers has abused products with DXM to get high, making it more popular in that age group than cocaine, ecstasy, LSD, and methamphetamines. OTC medications are also more accessible and uncontrolled at local drug stores, making DXM and other OTC substances more likely to be abused.

At normal doses, DXM is quite safe. Dextromethorphan affects the brain, specifically the region that controls coughing. However, at high doses, as much as 10 to 50 times the suggested amount, DXM can cause hallucinatory and dissociative effects similar to those of PCP or ketamine (special K.) In extreme causes, DXM can shut down the central nervous system, which causes people to be unable to respond or breath. There’s another sort of overdose risk, too. Combination cold and flu drugs often contain a number of other active ingredients including; cough suppressants, decongestants, antihistamines, and painkillers. When taken at high doses, these other drugs, like the pain killer acetaminophen (Tylenol), can be quite toxic causing irreversible can cause liver damage, and potentially heart attack, stroke, and death.  Another serious risk of DXM abuse is that people will injure themselves while high. The altered consciousness, impaired vision, and hallucinations can lead to irrational and dangerous behavior.

The abuse of both prescription and OTC cough syrups has been popularized by music icons. Sizzurp, Purple Drank and Texas tea are just a few of many names for toxic mixture of cough syrup with Sprite or Mountain Dew plus a Jolly Rancher made popular by the southern rap culture. This popular combination has been implicated in the death of rappers such as Pimp C, MC Big Moe, and DJ screw. Most recently Little Wayne spent several days in the hospital following several seizures associated with side effects of large amounts of “syrup” consumption. Some rappers are starting to speak out against the overuse of prescription drugs as illustrated in Macklemore’s Other Side

“Despite how Lil Wayne lives
It’s not conducive to being creative
And I know ’cause he’s my favorite
And I know ’cause I was off that same mix”

If your teen is taking medicine the way their medical provider told them to, that is not drug abuse. If you are worried your teen may be abusing prescription drugs, here are some tips that we suggest:

  • Talk to your teen about the dangers of prescription drugs. They can be just as toxic as other illicit drugs
  • Seek help. Contact your teen’s medical provider. They can assess your teen’s health and recommend drug treatment options if warranted.
  • Be sure to properly dispose of unused medications. If you aren’t using the medicine, look for pharmacy take back programs.

Most importantly, using medication prescribed to another person and misuse of over-the-counter medications can be dangerous and it is just as illegal as other street drugs.