Prescription Drug Abuse in Teens

Prescription Drug Abuse in Teens

May 20, 2022

Prescription drugs are among the most widely abused substances by teens in the United States. In the last decade, rates of prescription drug abuse among teens have more than doubled. Unfortunately, many parents may not recognize that there is danger before addiction has already developed. 


Teens and Prescription Drug Abuse

Research suggests young Americans, including those between the ages of twelve and eighteen, are among the highest users of illicit prescription drugs. Illicit (or illegal) prescription drugs are obtained through means other than a prescription by a medical or mental health provider. Some teens get these drugs by taking them from family members’ medicine cabinets. Others buy them from dealers or peers who may have obtained them in similar ways. 


When people talk about the current state of prescription drug abuse in the United States, they often consider the impact drug abuse and misuse have on adults. However, rates of prescription drug abuse among adolescents and teens are rising rapidly. Data from the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health suggests approximately 4.5% of 12th-grade students reported misusing a prescription drug in 2019. Many teens (and some adults) believe prescription drugs are safer than “street drugs” because a medical or mental health provider prescribes them, but this is not the case. 


Reasons for Prescription Drug Abuse in Teens

The reasons for teen prescription drug abuse vary widely. Some teens experience overwhelming peer pressure to try or experiment with substances. Others become overwhelmed by the day-to-day challenges of academics, family obligations, extracurricular activities, and other responsibilities. Some teens begin experimenting with prescription drugs to “get high” or dull pain and discomfort related to a medical or mental health problem. Still, others may think certain medications may help them lose weight quickly or even achieve better grades. 


Regardless of why or how they start, parents need to know more about prescription drug abuse in teens. Knowing what the signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse may look like can help you understand when to seek help for your teen at a treatment program like Hillcrest in Los Angeles, California. 


Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs Among Teens

As previously mentioned, a common and dangerous misconception among teens is that prescription drugs (whether theirs or someone else’s) are safer or less harmful than other kinds of “street drugs” such as heroin or cocaine. However, there is a broad range of short and long-term health consequences for each type of prescription drug when misused. Also, the risks of overdose, permanent health consequences, and even death are genuine dangers connected to prescription drug abuse. Commonly abused prescription drugs among teens fall into several categories or types of medication. 



Stimulants are a class of drugs that includes medications used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, such as Ritalin or Adderall. Stimulant drugs produce side effects that are similar to those of cocaine. Some of the most common may include paranoia, dangerously elevated blood pressure, and an irregular heartbeat. This is especially true if stimulant drugs are taken in large doses or methods other than swallowing a whole, uncrushed pill. Additional side effects include an increased risk of heart problems and seizures. 


Opioids (painkillers)

The drugs labeled as opioids often include medications such as oxycodone (Oxycontin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin). Opioid medications act on the same parts of the brain as heroin. When used, even appropriately, they can cause drowsiness, nausea, and constipation. When taken in larger quantities, they can also result in severely slowed breathing. Users may also crush the pills to achieve a more substantial, more immediate effect, resulting in lower blood pressure and even leading to coma and death.


Depressants and Sedatives

Teens commonly abuse antianxiety medications such as Xanax or sedatives used to treat sleep disorders such as Ambien. Depressant medications can cause shallow breathing, fatigue, lack of coordination, shallow breathing, and in some cases, seizures upon withdrawal from chronic or long-term use. In addition, misuse of sedatives in teens has an increased risk of overdose and death.


Signs, Symptoms, and Lasting Effects of Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

In addition to signs and symptoms of use linked to specific substances, you may also notice behavioral changes that could indicate your teen may be abusing prescription medication. Some of these behaviors may include sudden shifts in mood or personality. In addition, if you notice changes in appetite, such as a lack of desire to eat or suddenly increased weight gain, a potential substance use disorder may be something to consider. 


With prescription drug addiction, teens may engage in dangerous activities like driving under the influence or stealing to get more of the drug (or money to buy pills). Other behaviors impacted by prescription drug abuse include changes in sleep habits (such as sleeping too much or not being able to sleep well) and a lack of interest in activities they once enjoyed.


During one’s adolescent and teen years, their brain and body are still growing and developing. The side effects of prescription drug abuse can be particularly dangerous to your teen’s developing body systems. Certain parts of the body, particularly the human brain, continue developing until your teen reaches their early to mid-20s.  


During adolescence, the parts of the brain that enable us to control impulses and set priorities are still in the developmental phases. Drug abuse and misuse, even prescription drugs, impact perception skills and can lead to harmful effects on still developing neural pathways. The pathways that are consistently reinforced during development (during adolescence and teen years) are the ones that remain. If those pathways include substance misuse and addiction, the impacts can result in life-long challenges.


Helping Your Teen with Treatment at Hillcrest

If you suspect changes in your teen’s health or behavior are linked to prescription drug abuse or 

addiction, there are several things that you can do to help. First, it is essential to remember that struggles with addiction do not typically resolve independently. The safest and most effective way to help your teen overcome a destructive relationship with prescription drugs is to seek help. Early treatment at a teen-focused treatment center like Hillcrest is key to successful treatment and recovery. In addition to therapy and support at Hillcrest, there are several other “at home” options. 



One out of every four teens believes that prescription drugs can be used as a study aid to increase energy, help with focus and staying awake, or help improve memory. In addition to education for parents and prescribers, teens must learn more about the impact of prescription drugs, such as those used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, on the developing brain. 


Promote Awareness

Unless you ask your teen what they know about prescription drugs, you may not clearly understand the depth of their knowledge, both good and bad. If your teen takes a prescription drug (with a prescription from a provider), it is essential to teach them how to handle those medications properly and advise them never to give or sell the drugs to friends. Rather than lecturing, point out recent news stories about prescription drug abuse or the more considerable consequences of addiction, including overdose and death.


Be A Role Model

Modeling healthy behaviors by taking your prescription medications correctly, keeping track of your pills, and not borrowing medication from within your family are ways parents, and other adults can model safe and healthy medication practices. You can also teach your teen how to talk to their doctor or mental health provider and ask questions about their medications.


Store and Dispose of Your Medication Safely

Two-thirds of teens who misused pain relievers last year indicate that they got them from family and friends. This can include taking them from medicine cabinets within their home or asking other family members for their medications. Helping your teen use medications safely is essential to reducing teen prescription abuse and misuse. It is important to safeguard the medicine within the home by keeping potentially addictive drugs in a safe place and disposing of expired or unused medications.


Ask for Help

Ask your family doctor or a mental health professional to talk with your teen about the dangers of prescription drug use. If you are concerned that your teen may be struggling with prescription drug addiction, talk to their medical provider about the drugs prescribed to them and see if there are any non-medicinal alternatives to their current medications. If you believe your teen is already misusing medication, mental health professionals can provide screenings or immediate interventions at a licensed residential treatment program such as Hillcrest in Los Angeles, CA.


Reaching out for help as soon as you fear there could be an issue is essential to helping your teen defeat their addiction and achieve long-lasting recovery. When your teen arrives at Hillcrest, our staff experienced in teen addiction treatment will create a treatment program designed specifically for your teen’s needs. Our programs provide individual and group therapy options to help your teen look to the root of their addiction. In addition to treatment, detox (if necessary), nutrition, medication management, and other activities are all an integral part of your teen’s treatment program at Hillcrest. We also offer family counseling to help parents and teens work together during treatment and as part of aftercare planning. 


If you aren’t sure where to start and are concerned about your teen misusing prescription medications, begin at home. Ensure your medications are stored in a safe location where easy access is unlikely. Keep track of your prescription drugs and get rid of unused ones to ensure you are the only one taking them. There are many situations where prescription medications are essential to healthy physical and mental health functioning; however, intentional misuse of these medications remains a growing trend among teens (and adults). Discussions regarding addiction can be difficult for every family member, including your teen struggling with addiction. If you need assistance talking with your teen about addiction or the first steps to seeking addiction treatment, contact us at Hillcrest today to learn more about how we can help.