Teenagers & Prescription Drugs

Post Contributed By: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC

A common misconception is the idea that teenagers are more likely to abuse illicit drugs, such as marijuana or cocaine. However, statistics reveal the likelihood that teenagers will abuse prescription drugs, including opioids, stimulants, antidepressants, and tranquilizers.

Many teenagers mistakenly believe that using prescription drugs is in fact “safer” than illegal street drugs, and for this reason, may be more likely to abuse these types of medications. With a majority of teenagers gaining access to prescription drugs from medicine cabinets at home or family members, the accessibility of prescribed medications may also be a factor that influences drug abuse.

Prescription Drug Abuse Rising Among American Youth

While prescription drug abuse has become problematic in countries around the world, the rising misuse of prescription medications is increasing among our nation’s youth. According to statistics provided by the Foundation for a Drug Free World, an estimated 4.4 million teenagers (Aged 12 to 17) admitted to taking prescription painkillers in the United States, with the most commonly abused prescriptions being:

  • Ritalin
  • Adderall
  • Vicodin
  • Valium
  • Xanax [1,2]

Common Reason Teens Might Misuse Prescription Drugs

What are the common reasons why teenagers might be lured to misuse prescription medications? A variety of factors can influence this decision, including:

  • Peer and social pressures
  • An attempt to relieve pain and/or anxiety
  • An effort to achieve a “high”
  • Increased alertness
  • To lose weight

The decision to misuse prescription medications at such a young age is life-threatening and can create potential problems for the duration of a teen’s life. Teens who abuse prescription drugs open a gateway to more problematic substance abuse issues, being more likely to abuse alcohol, marijuana, and illegal street drugs [2].

Ways to Help Prevent Prescription Drug Abuse

If you are the parent or guardian of a teenager, know that there are many ways you can empower your loved one to make positive decisions when it comes to prescription drug use. Make the time and effort to:

  • Safe-guard your medicine cabinet
  • Have an inventory of what is stored in the house
  • Properly dispose of any unused prescriptions

If your teen is on a medication prescribed by their doctor, be involved in their treatment and care to ensure they are following appropriate protocol. Lastly, have a conversation with your teenager about the negative consequences of substance abuse and ways they reject drug use.

As a parent, you play an instrumental role in your teenager’s life, and your support and encouragement can give them the foundation they need to make positive decisions for their future.


  1. Foundation for a Drug-Free World, “The Truth About Prescription Drug Abuse”, http://www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/prescription/abuse-international-statistics.html
  2. NIDA for Teens, The Science Behind Drug Abuse, “Prescription Drugs”, http://teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/prescription-drugs