With cold and flu season in full swing, the medicine cabinet sees a lot of attention, housing medications that are prescribed or available over the counter (OTC). Most people get the relief they need and put the drugs away without giving them a second thought. However, medicine abuse is on the rise so parents should know its dangers and take steps to ensure all household medicine is monitored and stored safely.
After marijuana and alcohol, prescription drugs are the most commonly abused substances by Americans age 14 and older. Teens and young adults are chugging cough medicine to get high, pilfering pills for ADHD to stay awake to complete homework, becoming addicted to opioid painkillers and even taking parents’ medications in suicide attempts.
In 2014, an estimated 267,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 and 978,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 self-identified as nonmedical users of pain relievers, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “These numbers may not be epidemic, but they are alarming if you are a parent,” says Frances Harding, Director of SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.
In addition, approximately one in 30 teens reports using OTC cough medicine containing Dextromethorphan (DXM) to get high. “Prescription and over-the-counter medications are fast becoming the new ‘party’ drugs for many teenagers,” says IdaLynn T. Wenhold, Executive Director of KidsMatter. “This is a critical area that parents need to become more aware of because current stats indicate that 66 percent of teens who report abusing prescription medications admit getting them from family and friends.”
There are many actions parents can take to address medicine abuse and keep their kids safe.
1. Parents should keep the lines of communication open and talk with their kids about medicine abuse.
“We have documented over and over that young people, teenagers and young adults really do listen to their parents,” says Harding.
While parents have likely talked to their kids about saying no to drugs, not all kids see medicine as drugs and they fail to apply the same rules. Parents should specifically address medicine abuse with their kids.
“Half of teens do not see a great risk in abusing prescription or OTC drugs since they are viewed as ‘medicine’ prescribed by a doctor. Teens believe that abuse of prescription and OTC medicines is safer than street drugs. Communication is the key to helping them understand the dangers of OTC drugs,” says Wenhold.
How parents talk to kids matters too. “It’s critical for parents not to use scare tactics — but rather to equip kids to know the dangers associated with prescription and OTC drugs,” Wenhold adds.
“The conversations will vary by age,” says Harding, “but we want all parents to feel comfortable talking about respect of medication, which includes knowing what it should be used for, that all medications even when taken appropriately have side effects and that when taken inappropriately and/or by not the intended recipient, they have greater and very dangerous side effects.”
2. Safeguard medicine: Be aware of medications, amounts and ingredients.
It’s reasonable that people will have at least some medications that the keep in the home, and parents should be aware of what items are on their shelves.
“A great first step is to learn which medicines contain DXM. It’s in over 100 products,” says Jenni Roberson, Director of Communications and Media Relations for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which runs the website StopMedicineAbuse.org. She notes that manufacturers now label products with an icon and a link to StopMedicineAbuse.org to make parents more aware. “Once you’ve identified what contains DXM, then you can keep watch over it,” Roberson says.
The experts say when it comes to medications, parents should monitor, secure and dispose. Take inventory of your medicines. Have a list of all medication in one place and keeping a list of the medicines and the quantity of each. She also recommends that parents remove medications from the obvious “medicine cabinets” and secure them in a lock box or safe.
3. If you don’t need a medication, don’t keep it. Dispose of it.
The experts all agreed that parents should not keep unneeded medicines in their homes. While it is common for people to have more medication than they need, particularly with prescription medication, keeping it on hand “just in case” is not wise.
“Parents should not stockpile medicines. Don’t leave them in the home,” says Harding, noting that doing so means they are available to not only other families members, but friends, party guests, babysitters and others who enter your house and could come across it. “It is temptation you, and those in your home, don’t need.”
Communities commonly offer opportunities like drug take-back days that make it easy to safely dispose of medications. Parents can find the nearest American Medicine Chest Challenge Disposal drop-off location to them here. Also, National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, organized by the Drug Enforcement Agency, is April 30, 2016.
4. Parents should teach their kids to be informed patients.
All medications have side effects, and teenagers taking medications should be aware of them and be informed about their treatment plan and the impacts, both good and bad, that medications can have.
“Encourage teens and young adults to ask about side effects of medications. Let doctors and prescribers tell kids about what the drug is for, what it does to their body and what happens if they take more than prescribed,” Harding urges.
5. Tell kids that sharing isn’t okay, even with the best of intentions.
Harding notes that many kids have the best intentions of helping a friend in pain when they share prescription medicines, but they need to understand that doing so is not okay. Parents can explain that prescriptions are not one size fits all, but rather written and dispensed for an individual, taking factors including their weight, medical history and other conditions into account. Parents should emphasize that only the person whose name is on the bottle should ingest a prescription, and that taking medication intended for someone else is a form of abuse.
6. Know the terminology.
“CCC, skittling, robotripping, dexting are all terms that refer to abuse of OTC cough medicine and parents need to be aware,” says Roberson. Be aware of what kids are talking about.
7. Know the symptoms of medicine abuse.
In addition to obvious signs such as empty cough medicine bottles and missing prescriptions, parents should also be on the look out for subtler changes, including declining grades, loss of interest in hobbies and favorite activities, and changes in eating and sleeping patterns. If your child is exhibiting symptoms, seek help. Be sure to share your suspicion with your child’s primary care physician. You can find more information on treatment on the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids helpline and the SAMHSA treatment locator.
8. Monitor internet usage.
Many parents track their children’s online activities and typically keep an eye out for inappropriate content or oversharing, but online behavior can also tip parents off to a problem with medicine abuse. Parents should monitor online activity to ensure kids are not visiting one of the roughly 40,000 active rogue websites pushing counterfeit or otherwise illegitimate medicines to U.S. consumers, often without requiring a doctor’s evaluation in accordance with U.S. state and federal laws. Kids can also visit websites or social media pages that promote medicine abuse, some of which even offer instructions on how to go about it and advice on achieving certain levels of highs.
9. Talk with other parents.
“It’s important that parents talk with other parents about OTC medicine abuse,” says Roberson. Doing so is particularly important because kids often abuse medicine in their own home or their friends’ homes, and hopefully those households are also taking steps to prevent medicine abuse, which is more likely to happen when it’s a topic of discussion at school meetings, sports events, and other gatherings of parents.
Resources for parents
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