Home HealthTopics Health Centers Reference Library Research
Join us on Facebook Join us on Facebook Share on Facebook

Addiction and Substance Abuse

What Parents Need to Know About Prescription and OTC Drug Abuse

Dangerous Drugs in Your Medicine Cabinet

Some of the most commonly abused drugs by teens and young adults today are probably sitting in your medicine cabinet. Prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are found in the medicine cabinets of almost every household. But what too many parents do not know is that abuse of these drugs is a major problem.

In fact, teens are abusing prescription and OTC drugs in alarming numbers. A study by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America found that among teens:

When used as intended medically, prescription and OTC cough medicines are very safe. They have helped countless people and have saved many lives. However, when they are not taken as intended, these medications can lead to addictions, health problems, and even death.

But as a parent, you are far from powerless. You can take steps to prevent a problem from forming. You can monitor your child for signs of abuse. And you can help your child if a problem does develop. Read on to find out how.


Why Teens Abuse Prescription and OTC Drugs

Teens abuse prescription and OTC drugs for many reasons. Prescription medicines, and even OTC drugs if taken in large doses, can produce a high. They are easy to get. Studies also show many teens believe these FDA approved drugs are much safer to use than street drugs. But they are in fact very dangerous when not used as intended medically.


Steps Parents Can Take to Prevent Rx/OTC Drug Abuse

Parents can take an active role in preventing the abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs by their teens. Take the following steps to help protect your teen:

1. Clean out the medicine cabinet.

One major source of prescription and OTC drugs for teens is the medicine cabinet. Left-over prescriptions or last season's cold pills can be easily accessed by teens. Discard any old or expired medicines. Place medicines that you still need in a safe place.

2. Monitor your teen's internet habits.

Another major source of prescription drugs for teens is the Internet. Consider placing your family computers in a place where your teen's Internet activities can be monitored. You can also view the Internet history of all household computers to check sites your teen is visiting.

If you suspect a substance abuse problem, you can monitor the mail for unexplained packages. Prescription drugs ordered online are received through the mail or package delivery services.

3. Educate yourself and other parents about the issue.

Prescription and OTC drug abuse is a big problem. Yet too many parents are not aware of the possibility of this type of drug abuse. Educate yourself on the issue. Then educate other parents you know -- such as parents of your teen's friends.

4. Talk to your teen about the dangers and your expectations.

It is important that you keep the lines of communication open with your teen:

Teens need to hear that abusing prescription and OTC drugs is not safe. Unless used as medically intended, they are very dangerous. Many prescription and OTC drugs can become addictive, and use of these drugs can even result in death.

If you wonder whether talking to your teen will have any impact, be assured that parents are a major force in the lives of their teen children. Two-thirds of kids say that losing their parents' respect and pride was one of the main reasons they didn't use drugs, according to a survey done by The Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Teens that learn anti-drugs messages at home are also about half as likely to use drugs.


How Will I Know if My Teen is Abusing Prescription or OTC Drugs?

The following may be signs that your teen is abusing prescription or OTC drugs. Just remember, some behavior-related signs could represent "normal" teen behavior.


The CAGE and CRAFFT questions are two more tools to help understand whether someone might be addicted to drugs. These tools are often used by professionals to spot substance abuse. The CAGE questions were created for adults, while the CRAFFT questions were designed for adolescents.

If You Suspect Your Teen is Abusing Rx/OTC Drugs

If you suspect your teen may be abusing prescription, OTC, or other illicit drugs, they probably are. Take action and talk to him or her about your concerns:

During the talk, ask your teen whether or not he or she is taking drugs. If you do not feel he or she will tell the truth, you might want to take further steps to find out whether drugs are being used. Further steps might include talking with other individuals who often come in contact with your teen such as teachers or parents of your teen's friends.

You may also wish to get help in starting the conversation from another family member, a school guidance counselor, or a family doctor.

For more tips on talking to your child about drug abuse, visit the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You can also read the Action Guide for Parents.

Seeking Help from an Expert or Treatment Center

If you know your child is using drugs, remember that you are not alone. Know, too, that help is out there.

One important first step is getting expert evaluation. Your family doctor, local hospital, or school nurse may be able to refer you to local sources of expert evaluation and treatment. Such sources may include substance abuse centers and treatment facilities. In addition, some mental health treatment facilities evaluate and treat substance abuse problems.

You can also locate sources of help through the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator from SAMHSA, which lists over 12,000 treatment centers. Search the locator for treatment centers in your state online, or by calling their toll-free telephone number at: 1-800-662-HELP (1-800-662-4357) to find local treatment centers.

Sources of help exist for family members as well. One such source is Al-anon, which offers support groups providing help and hope for the family members and friends of alcohol users. These support groups can be very helpful for the family members and friends of drug users too. Find Al-anon meetings in your area online.

If you know that your child is using prescription, OTC, or other illicit drugs -- or suspect that he or she may be --take action. While this is surely a trying and scary period of time, know that many other parents have gone through similar experiences, taken action, and seen good results.


OTC Drugs
Legal but Lethal: The Danger of Abusing Over-the-Counter Drugs

Prescription Drugs
How Do Kids Get Prescription Drugs?
A Prescription for Danger – Use of Painkillers on the Rise

Talking to Your Teen about Drug Abuse
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America
Action Guide for Parents

This article was written by Jennifer Hoehn, Graduate Student, MPH Program, OSU College of Public Health.

For more information:

Go to the Addiction and Substance Abuse health topic, where you can:

This article is a NetWellness exclusive.

Last Reviewed: Feb 03, 2009

Peter D Rogers, MD, MPH
Clinical Associate Professor
College of Medicine
The Ohio State University