Most households have them: cough and cold medications we've purchased to help our kids (and ourselves) feel better when a common cold or flu hits.

Many of us keep painkillers that were prescribed for an ailment we had but no longer need on a daily basis; the same goes for sleep aids and anti-anxiety drugs. And if one of your children takes medicine for ADHD, that's in the family medicine chest as well.

All these drugs serve a very useful purpose. But they also have another use: these common over-the counter (OTC) and prescription medicines are some of the most commonly abused drugs by teenagers.

When taken as directed, these drugs are safe and effective, but high doses can cause problems. And some medications can produce dangerous health effects when taken with alcohol—an all-too common scenario with teens who abuse drugs.

A New Drug Epidemic?

Abuse of prescription drugs is highest among young adults aged 18 to 25. However, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that among youths 12 to 17 years old, 7.4 percent said that in the last year they used prescription drugs for non-medicinal purposes. What's more, approximately 1 in 20 teens reports abusing excessive amounts of Dextromethorphan (DXM) to get high.

According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), in 2010, there were 4.9 million drug-related emergency department (ED) visits; about one half (46.8 percent or 2.3 million visits) were attributed to drug misuse or abuse.

What Are Some of the Commonly Abused Drugs?

Prescription: Although many different medications can be abused, the following three classes are most commonly abused:

  • Opioids—usually prescribed to treat pain
  • Central nervous system (CNS) depressants—used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders
  • Stimulants—most often prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Over the Counter: More than 100 OTC medicines containing DXM are on the market today and come in many different forms, including liquids, capsules, gel caps, lozenges, and tablets. Common DXM-containing cough medicines include many forms of Alka Seltzer PlusTM, ComtrexTM, CoricidinTM, DelsymTM, DimetappTM, Mucinex DMTM, PediacareTM, RobitussinTM, TherafluTM, TriaminicTM, Tylenol Cough & ColdTM, Vicks DayQuilTM/NyQuilTM, Vicks Formula 44TM and more, including generic versions of these products.

Why Teens Abuse Drugs

Teens abuse prescription and OTC drugs for a number of reasons, including to get high, to treat pain, or because they think it will help them focus on school work. Interestingly, while boys and girls tend to abuse the same types of drugs, they do so for different reasons.

Boys are more inclined to abuse stimulants to get high and to enhance school performance, while girls tend to abuse them to stay alert, provide focus, or to suppress their appetites in an effort to lose weight. Teens get high by crushing the pills and then snorting them. Some abusers dissolve the tablets in water and inject the mixture. Complications from this method of use can arise because insoluble fillers in the tablets can block small blood vessels.

Where Teens Get These Drugs

Both teens and young adults obtain the majority of prescription drugs from friends and relatives, oftentimes without their knowledge. And in one recent survey, 54 percent of high school seniors said that opioid drugs other than heroin (Vicodin or Percocet for example) would be fairly or very easy to get.

When asked how prescription opioids were obtained for non-medical use, more than half of the 12th graders surveyed said they were given the drugs or bought them from a friend or relative. Interestingly, the number of students who purchased opioids over the Internet was negligible.

Not surprisingly, those who abuse prescription medications are also more likely to report that they use other drugs as well. Numerous studies have revealed associations between prescription drug abuse and higher rates of cigarette smoking; heavy episodic drinking; and marijuana, cocaine, and other illicit drug use among adolescents, young adults, and college students in the United States.

What You Can Do

  • Dispose of all prescription medications once the prescription has been completed.
  • Monitor the OTC medications in your medicine cabinet; dispose of any that are expired.
  • Know the signs of drug abuse, which may include drowsiness, confusion, irritability, weight loss, insomnia, restlessness, and impulsive behavior.

Marnie Cambria, MD, reviewed this article.




Facts on Prescription and Over the Counter Drugs (pdf: PeerRx Abuse is Drug Abuse),

National Institute on Drug Abuse,

Stop Medicine Abuse,

Get Off, Government Statistics,