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Prescription Medicine Abuse: What’s Happening and Why

The misuse and abuse of prescription medicine have helped drive the current addiction epidemic, with problematic behavior often beginning during the teen and young adult years.

What is going on?

Used as prescribed or directed, medicine improves our lives. The consequences can be devastating when misused and abused, particularly among teens.

1 in 4 teens reports having misused or abused prescription drugs at least once in their lifetime.

As a nation, we’ve become familiar — and comfortable — with the everyday use of prescription (Rx) and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. As new medicines for alleviating symptoms come to market, they are heavily marketed and advertised, raising our awareness of the conditions they treat. As a result, many have grown up associating medicine with solving problems — and have a heightened awareness of their use.

Two-thirds (66 percent) of teens who report the abuse of prescription pain relievers are getting them from friends, family, and acquaintances.

While some teens abuse medicine to party and get high, many use it to manage stress or regulate their lives. Some abuse prescription stimulants to provide additional energy and increase their ability to focus when studying or taking tests. Others abuse pain relievers, tranquilizers, and over-the-counter cough medicine to cope with academic, social, or emotional stress.

Teens and other young adults don’t necessarily see this behavior as risky. Many believe that since medicine is created and tested in a scientific environment, it is safer to use than illicit drugs.

How is this affecting teens and young adults?

There are real dangers to medicine abuse, just as with illicit drugs. Young adults who abuse prescription medicine can experience dramatic increases in blood pressure and heart rate, organ damage, difficulty breathing, seizures, addiction, and even death.


Nearly 80 percent of people who inject heroin start by abusing prescription drugs.

The abuse of prescription opioid pain medicine (like OxyContin, Percocet, fentanyl, and others) is also linked to increases in the use of illicit heroin, helping drive the addiction epidemic.


What can we do?

We know that young people who learn about the dangers of drugs and alcohol early and often are much less likely to develop addiction than those who do not receive these critical messages at home. Unfortunately, our research shows that parents are not communicating the risks of prescription medicine abuse to their children as often as they talk about other drugs. This is partly because some parents are unaware of the behavior (which wasn’t as prevalent when they were teenagers) and partly because those aware of medicine abuse tend to underestimate the risks — just as teens and young people do.


Prescription Medicine: Safety Begins at Home

Properly Store Your Medication

  1. The first rule of prescription medication storage is to keep it out of reach of children. According to the CDC, 60,000 children are taken to the emergency room every year for unintentionally taking a dose of medication. Children often find pills on the ground or in a purse or diaper bag.

  2. Store your medication in the original container with the original label. This ensures you always have all the information you need on dosing the expiration date. It allows you to ensure it is your medication, not someone else’s. These bottles are typically childproof, so it will make it difficult for your little one to open them accidentally.

  3. Keep them locked up. Store your medicine in a cabinet or drawer with a lock. This prevents children, pets, or guests from accessing them.

  4. Store in a cool, dry place. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, which may include special instructions about temperature, light exposure, or storage in a dry place. Keep your medication away from places with heat, light, or moisture. If not, you may damage the medication. If you are unsure how to store your medication, this information can be found on each medication’s website or in the prescribing information on the container.

  5. Check expiration dates. Always follow the expiration date on your drugs. That is the only way to make sure the drug you are using is safe and effective.

  6. Take inventory. Every six months, take an inventory of your drugs in your home. Safely dispose of anything expired or unneeded.

  7. Together, parents and other caregivers, healthcare providers, community leaders, and educators can all make a difference and end medicine abuse.

Improperly managed medications can lead to problems down the road. By following simple protocol, families can reduce the chances of getting addictions started at home.


Call Us if you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or addiction and need help. Our non-profit offers free Clinical Evaluations and Case Management services to individuals and families needing them.


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Data Source: Drugfree.org


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