Celebrating Red Ribbon Week

Hugh Gray Contributing Columnist

October 25, 2013

Red Ribbon Week, Oct. 23-31, is celebrated each year to help make our community aware of the dangers of substance abuse. This year, Red Ribbon Week includes an emphasis on the use of over-the-counter drugs by youth.

Prescription medicines, taken properly, help heal illness, relieve pain, control disease and bring balance to your life. But when others take your medications, they can be very dangerous. An alarming trend is emerging. Every day, more than 4,000 children and young adults begin experimenting with prescription drugs. These drugs range from pain relievers and depressants to stimulants and over-the-counter (OTC) medicine.

Some disturbing data from research:

2.1 million teens abuse prescription drugs.

3.1 million 12 to 25 year olds used OTC cough and cold medications at least once to get high.

Prescription drugs are the #1 choice among 12-13 year olds.

One-third of all new abusers of prescription drugs are 12-17 year olds.

13 is the mean age of the first non-prescribed use of sedatives and stimulants.

One in seven boys and one in five girls has shared or borrowed a prescription drug.

Nearly one in 10 high school seniors admit abusing pain relievers.

Girls age 12-17 are more likely than boys to misuse OTC medications, but the trend reverses with18- to 25-year-olds.

What’s in your medicine cabinet? On your nightstand or the kitchen counter? In your purse? Naturally, you keep prescription medicines and cold and cough remedies handy for you to take when needed. But, they are also handy for teens to take without you knowing it. Adolescents believe that since the medicines were prescribed by a doctor, they provide an inexpensive, legal and “medically safe” high. In the case of OTC remedies, most children have been given these medicines by their parents for common illnesses, such as fevers, colds and coughs. So, teens believe it is safe to take these drugs whenever they choose. The proliferation of pharmaceutical ads on television as well as the Internet and peer misinformation helps contribute to this attitude.

We often ask: Why? Teens give many reasons for abusing prescription and OTC drugs, such as wanting to “fit in,” relieve depression and anxiety, help them cope with life’s stresses, sleep better or increase their alertness and concentration power so they can do better in school. Some want to control their weight with stimulants. Others want to self-medicate to relieve pain. They want to experiment. They want to be accepted by their peers. They want to escape reality or make their reality more bearable. The abuse of OTC drugs by teens is largely with cough and cold medicines that contain dextromethorphan (DXM) to get high. Some young people are also abusing laxatives, diuretics and diet pills to control their weight. Some herbal or “natural” products can be just as dangerous as diet pills because they act like a stimulant on the nervous system.

When your doctor prescribes medicine for you, the effects are closely monitored. But when teenagers abuse medicines that are prescribed for someone else, no one is monitoring their dosage or frequency of use. They can become addicted, poisoned or even die from an overdose.

All too often, teens combine prescription or OTC drugs with other substances, like alcohol or marijuana, which can lead to dangerous consequences. And, sometimes they attend “pharm or rainbow parties” where various prescription medications are dumped into a bowl and randomly ingested.

Quite frequently young people merely open the medicine cabinet, and there before them is a variety of drugs available for the taking: pain pills for post surgery; sleeping pills from an overseas airplane trip; cough medicine from last season’s flu. The time to act is now. You are the key to your child’s drug-free future.

Take the following preventative steps:

■ Remove drugs from your medicine cabinet and hide them, lock them up or take them out of your house.

■ Safeguard all medicines that have to remain at home by monitoring quantities and controlling access.

■ Take inventory by writing down the names and amounts of medications you currently have and regularly check to see if anything is missing.

■ If your child is on prescribed medication, monitor the dosages and refills. Set clear rules, such as not sharing and always following proper dosages.

■ Warn your youngsters that taking prescription or OTC drugs without a doctor’s supervision can be just as dangerous and potentially lethal as taking street drugs.

■ Supervise your child’s Internet use: many pharmacy sites are not regulated and will sell your child medications without prescriptions.

■ Properly dispose of old, expired or unused medicines in the trash. Call your local Sheriff or police department for local “takeback” collection information. DO NOT flush medications down the drain or toilet, unless the label indicates it is safe to do so.

Hugh Gray is the Executive Director and Director of Prevention Services at Westview Behavioral Health Services.