Understanding the Problems of Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

Written by | Updated January 4, 2017

Although legal and safe when taken in the recommended dosage, most teens don’t realize that abusing an over the counter (OTC) drug can lead to serious physical and metal heath problems, addiction, and even death.

Abusing OTC drugs isn’t a new trend, but it’s one that’s becoming alarmingly popular with tweens and teens. In fact, according to Overthecounterdrugaddiction.com, approximately 1 out of every 11 teens has abused an over the counter medicine.

You’ve probably talked with your child about the dangers of experimenting with alcohol and illegal drugs; now’s the time to have a chat with them about OTC medications.

Why is OTC drug abuse so widespread?

There are several reasons why OTC drugs have become popular with teens. OTC drugs are easily accessible (they can be purchased at convenience stores, drugs stores, groceries and discount stores) they are cheap, and they are legal. Because they are legal to possess, it’s easy for kids to transfer OTC drugs from one to another and been seen with OTC drugs without raising suspicion. OTC drugs don’t have the stigma that illicit drugs do, so kids think using them isn’t “as bad.” Unfortunately, parents also make the mistake of feeling the same way.

Understanding OTC abuse symptoms

It’s important to become familiar with the common symptoms of OTC drug use so you are better prepared to detect if your child is abusing OTC drugs and take action quickly.

Common symptoms of OTC abuse include hostility, confusion, nausea and dizziness, poor coordination, anxiety and panic attacks, vomiting, and diarrhea.

In addition to these common symptoms of OTC abuse, more serious problems can arise from using OTC medications improperly- including seizures, irregular heartbeat, psychosis, loss of consciousness and even death.
teen prescription drug abuse

Commonly abused OTC drugs

Used for treating everyday aliments like coughs and colds, insomnia, allergies, sinus pressure, and headaches, some of the most commonly abused OTC drugs are probably in your bathroom medicine cabinet right now. They include:

    • Nasal spray, like Afrin and Neosynephrine


    • Cold medicine, like Nyquil, Robitussin and Vicks


    • Sleep aids, like Unisom and Sominex


  • Antihistamines found in Benadryl and other allergy medications

In addition to the OTC drugs listed above, you should be aware that drugs containing the ingredient dextromethorphan (DXM) are particularly popular with teens. DXM is found in many cough suppressants and cold medicines, and when abused can cause hallucinations, confusion and slurred speech. Popular slang names for DXM include Dex, Robo and Skittles. Whether it is in a liquid, capsule or lozenge form, you should carefully monitor your child’s use of OTC drugs that contain DXM.
cough syrup

Who is at greatest risk for abusing OTC drugs?

Anyone who has access to OTC drugs is at risk for abusing them (including parents) but research conducted by the University of Cincinnati suggests that boys are more likely than girls to do so. Researchers revealed the teens who reported abusing OTC drugs also admitted to being at parties where OTC drugs were available and had friends who abused OTC drugs. The study showed that youth involved in activities such as sports, clubs and church organizations were less likely to have abused OTC drugs. But keep in mind, even “good kids” cave-in to peer pressure and are discovered abusing OTC drugs. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it couldn’t happen to your child.

Sadly, only about one third of parents talk to their teens about the dangers of OTC medication abuse. Be proactive by helping your child understand the very real dangers of OTC drug abuse and keep the lines of communication open. You can’t stop your child from experimenting with OTC drugs, but by keeping abreast of OTC drug abuse trends you’ll be better able to recognize when he or she is doing so.

Spread awareness about OTC drug abuse.

Written by Alexia Chianis

Wanderlust junky and mom of two, Alexia is a former police officer and U.S. Army Captain who draws on her experiences to write about a myriad of safety topics. Learn more

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