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Signs Of Prescription Drug Abuse in Teens, and How to Get Help

By Jacqueline Hensler
Prescription drug abuse among teens is a continuing problem, in part because prescribed medications are easy to access.

Prescription drug misuse isn’t just an issue among adults. Teens are also experimenting with prescription drugs, and abusing them. 

According to a 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in seven high school students have misused prescription opioids at least once. Although teen substance abuse has declined, misuse of prescription drugs is still high. If you are concerned about a child, here’s how to spot signs of prescription drug abuse in teens. 

Changes Within Their Group of Friends

Some teenagers start taking prescription medication to experiment. 

“It is often a combination of factors like peer network, social norms, curiosity, poor coping mechanisms, and availability of substances,” Samantha Lookatch, PhD, a psychologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “Teens are often exposed to prescription drugs through their own prescriptions, other family members, and friends.”

In fact, more than half of teens report getting prescription drugs from a friend or relative, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

“Social pressure and being accepted by their peers are often significant causes of teenage drug use,” Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, CASAC, an addiction specialist, tells WebMD Connect to Care. “Teens often start using to self-medicate or to enhance performance or concentration,” Sternlicht says.  

Physical and Emotional Changes 

According to a 2020 report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the medications most commonly misused are opioids, depressants, and stimulants. Some common prescription drug names are Adderall, OxyContin, Valium, or Vicodin, all of which can affect judgment in a developing teenager. According to Sternlicht, stimulants can create an irregular heartbeat while opioids can reduce your heart and respiratory rate; both can be life-threatening.

“One of the most significant mental and physical developmental changes that can occur for teenagers is in their brain chemistry,” Sternlicht says. “Prescription drug use may also damage the region of the brain responsible for impulse control, attention, and information processing.” 

According to Sternlicht, you’ll want to watch for the following changes in your teens’ behavior

  • An increase in risky behavior, poor judgment, or rule-breaking.
  • Sudden changes in eating habits, sleep routines, or weight loss.
  • Poor grades or problems at school.
  • Changes in mood such as mood swings, depression, or irritability.
  • Trouble concentrating.

Don’t Wait. Get Help Now. 

If you see signs that your teen is misusing prescription drugs, start asking questions. “Family involvement is often a fundamental component of steering kids away from abusing prescription drugs and finding treatment,” Sternlicht says. “Don’t overreact or lash out and focus on listening and understanding your teen.”

Some actions you can take at home are to store prescription medications in a locked cabinet, in original containers, and safely discard old medications. Parents may also want to seek professional help. “I always encourage parents to seek a mental health specialist or treatment provider that specializes in working with teenage drug dependence,” Sternlicht says.  

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help. 

Treatment & Resources for Prescription Drugs