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Prescription Drug Abuse In Teens

Many think prescription drugs are safe because doctors distribute them, but in truth these medications are just as dangerous as illicit street drugs when abused. If your child has been stealing pills from the medicine cabinet, they may have an addiction.


9 min read

The Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse

Many teens struggle with prescription drug abuse and it often has to do with their easy access to these pills.

In many cases, a child has access to these pills because they know family members or friends with these prescriptions. Other times, they can develop a dependence after being legally prescribed the pills by their doctor. Drug dealers are now also cashing in on the popularity of these pills by scoring bottles and reselling individual pills for massive upcharges.

Left unchecked, prescription pill abuse can lead to:

  • Drug Addiction – when the brain can become dependent on the drug, convincing the teen to feed their craving at all costs
  • Overdose – when there’s so much of the substance in the blood, the body can’t detoxify itself quick enough for the brain to function properly

The numbers are staggering. In 1999, 418 young adults from ages 18–24 died of a prescription drug overdose. In 2014, that number was up over 300% to 1,714. Among the most commonly abused prescription drugs are painkillers and depressants, both of which lead to many untimely fatalities.

Impact on the Body

Prescription drugs are engineered to impact the body in certain ways. When misused, they can wreak havoc on a developing teenager.

The health risks of prescription drug abuse can include:

  • Damage to organs
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Mood swings
  • Seizures
  • Coma
  • Heart attack or stroke
  • Birth defects (if pregnant)

Impact on the Brain

Pills can impact the brain just like illicit drugs when abused. By reworking the brain’s circuitry, these medications can do permanent damage — particularly in the teen years, when the growing brain is extra malleable and sensitive. Abusing pills in the teen years can cause memory loss, decreased cognitive function, trouble learning and inability to regulate behavior. It can also leave the brain depleted of essential chemicals like dopamine, the depletion of which can cause depression, irritability and trouble sleeping. A decreased flow of oxygen to the brain can also cause to long-term brain damage.

Where Does Teen Prescription Drug Abuse Start?

Studies show that teens don’t just get their prescription drugs from their physicians. While 35.1% of 12th graders have legitimate prescriptions, friends and relatives are often popular sources for these drugs. In 56.9% of cases, teens are given the pills from them, 32.3% are bought from them and 19.6% are just taken without their consent.

Teens may decide to try pills for a number of reasons: pleasure, stress, peer pressure, curiosity or simply because they saw somebody else doing it. Some teens may take prescription pills such as adderall to gain an academic edge – a practice that has become extremely prominent in recent years.

young people passing around pills

Just because these drugs have medical uses doesn’t make them safe under all circumstances. On the contrary, prescription pill abuse leads to more addiction and ER visits among teens than almost any other illicit drug. Painkillers also cause more overdose deaths than all other drugs combined. In the United States, prescription meds are the most abused drugs among 12- and 13-year-olds.

Teen prescription drug abuse often leads to experimentation with harder drugs. In fact, several of these pills share chemical similarities with illicit drugs, affecting the body much like teen cocaine abuse or heroin addiction would.

Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

teen uncertain about taking pills

Not all pills are created equal. Prescription drugs are in vogue for multiple reasons. As these medications grow more potent and diverse, doctors and parents have taken to over-prescribing them for kids, believing they can serve as cure-alls for behavioral issues and health problems alike. As these pills have spread into households from coast to coast, teens discovered that many of them produce a “high” comparable to illicit drugs — even more intense in some cases. Some will even crush pills into a powder to be snorted like cocaine, which delivers the drug straight to the brain in a matter of seconds.

As of 2014, 52 million Americans over the age of 12 have used prescription drugs non-medically — almost 20% of the population. Even though the U.S. makes up only 5% of the world’s population, it consumes 75% of the world’s prescription drugs. Many of these people learn the hard way that these tiny, legal medications can inflict serious harm and ignite addictions like even the most notorious hard substances.

The three most commonly abused types of prescription drugs are:

  • Stimulants
  • Tranquilizers
  • Painkillers


Stimulants — sometimes called “uppers” — are designed to heighten one’s focus, energy and attention. Adderall and Ritalin are among the most popular prescription stimulants, serving as treatment for kids with attention disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (also known as ADHD). Teens have taken a liking to these pills as study aid drugs for final exam season and cram sessions. The drugs are now fixtures on college campuses where teens buy and sell the pills by the thousands. Behind only alcohol and marijuana, Adderall is the most popular drug among 12th graders.


Tranquilizers, sedatives and depressants work in the opposite way of stimulants. These drugs are intended to help treat insomnia or manage anxiety disorder in teens and adults. Whereas stimulants can elevate the heart beat and get the body moving faster, sedatives can lower heart rate, slow breathing and leave users feeling woozy to sometimes dangerous degrees. Xanax, Valium, Klonopin and Ativan are perhaps the most well-known sedatives, while Ambien, Sonata and Lunesta are the most widely used sleeping pills.


Painkillers cause more damage than all other prescription drugs on the market. These drugs are abused more often than stimulants and tranquilizers combined. In 2013, 71% of prescription overdose deaths involved painkillers. The vast majority of new heroin users start off with opioid abuse, due to the drug having similar chemical effects on the body and brain. These opioids include Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin.

Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse

The sooner you identify that your teen is struggling with prescription drug abuse, the quicker you can get them the help they need.

Keep an eye out for signs of prescription drug abuse, which may include:

  • Change in energy level
  • Change in sleep habits
  • Worsening hygiene or personal appearance
  • Shifts in mood or behavior
  • Hanging out with different friends
  • Trouble in school
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Constantly being broke or asking for money

If you don’t notice these signs, you can still identify a prescription drug addiction through the physical symptoms, which include constricted pupils, flushed skin, shaky hands and sweating.

During adolescence, your teen goes through enough natural changes to not make these signs seem like red flags at first glance. It’s when your teen exhibits a combination of these signs and symptoms — in conjunction with pills in your medicine cabinet going missing or your teen exhibiting behavioral issues that can’t be ignored — that you should intervene.

If your child has a serious dependence to these drugs, withdrawal symptoms can include nausea, vomiting and behaving strangely and erratically.

>Over-the-Counter Drugs

Over-the-counter (or OTC) medications often come with minor age restrictions or no restrictions at all. These can include items like cough medicine, diet pills and anti-inflammatories. If they can’t get their hands on stronger drugs, many teens take to abusing these less potent medicines in search of a quick high. Over-the-counter drug abuse — when the drugs are taken improperly or in high doses — can lead to serious injury, overdose and, in rare cases, even death.

Can Prescription Pills Be Combined with Other Drugs?

Combining drugs or alcohol and prescription drugs, the risks of drug abuse are amplified dramatically. These substances can clash inside the body and cause a domino effect of conflicting reactions, which can lead to the body shutting down, overdosing or even death.

open pill bottle

Several high profile celebrities (including Whitney Houston and Heath Ledger) died recently from an unfortunate cocktail of prescription pills that their bodies simply couldn’t handle. Doctors do their best to warn those with prescriptions not to mix, and the warnings are emblazoned across the labels on most pill bottles. Unfortunately, according to studies, 60% of people who regularly take volatile prescriptions also drink alcohol and 5% have at least 3 drinks in a row when they do.

Are Prescription Pills Addictive?

Approximately 3–5% of people who take prescription pain drugs eventually up addicted those drugs. Around 40% of people entering rehab these days are addicted to prescription drugs. The effects may not be as apparent all at once and because of this, your teen may not realize they’re addicted until weeks or months into the problem.

“They take them for recreational purposes, and then a portion of them find, ‘Wow, I can’t stop using this.'”

Jon MorgensternDirector of Addiction Treatment at the Columbia University Medical Center

If your child is dependent on a prescription drug, they can become reliant on the pills to get through their day, becoming unhinged when they’re unable to get their hands on more. This is when withdrawal kicks in.

Is My Teen at Risk If They’re Prescribed Pills?

Doctors may prescribe prescription pills for a variety of reasons: after a surgery or serious injury, to help with teen ADHD or for serious teen anxiety disorders. If your teen’s mind and body become attached to the benefits of a drug, they may begin to crave them and even rely on them. This can be the beginning stages of a serious addiction.

doctor writing out a prescription

To help them avoid side effects, ensure that they follow the doctor’s recommended dosage. Each little pill is highly potent and even the smallest difference in how much your teen takes can alter their body’s response. Make sure your teen takes the recommended dosages — nothing more and nothing less. To be safe, keep a count of how many pills are in the bottle each day and write this number down. Keep all prescription medicine safe and locked away in your home.

If at any point you notice your teen reacting strangely to their prescription or developing symptoms of a fever or other illness, speak with your doctor about possibly changing their recommended dosage.

Need Prescription Drug Rehab?

With a proper diagnosis and in the right hands, a teen battling prescription drug abuse or addiction stands a good chance of defeating it. Teen drug rehab will likely involve a preliminary assessment, drug detox and behavioral therapy to get to the root of your child’s addiction.

No two addictions are the same, so it’s important to get help from a professional when choosing the right teen rehab center for your family. Sitting down with your teen’s primary care physician is the first step. They can help put you in touch with prescription drug rehab centers in your area.

You can also look to for advice. When you call us, our experienced recovery advisors can answer any questions you may have about prescription drug addiction treatment, and can help you find a rehab facility that’s right for your family. We are dedicated to providing resources to families as they face teen addiction, so calling or chatting with our recovery advisors is always free and confidential.


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