Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medication


RX and OTC Drugs

By Dena Charbonneau, MSW, LSW, CPS
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of Middlesex County, Inc.
Street drugs like marijuana, cocaine, or LSD are no longer the drugs of choice among teens.  While some teens still use these drugs, many more abuse drugs that don’t carry the same stigma, are easier to get, and provide the same type of high:  prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs.

You may think that prescription or OTC drugs are safe, but this is not true.  Abuse of these drugs is not a problem to be ignored.  These drugs are only safe when used properly.  When teens intentionally abuse these drugs to get high, they are not taking a couple of pills or an extra swig of cough syrup.  In many cases, teens are ingesting anywhere from a few pills to dozens or more a day or drinking 3-5 bottles of cough syrup a day, sometimes mixed with alcohol.

Taking prescription drugs without a doctor’s approval and supervision can be a dangerous and deadly decision.  According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), almost half (48%) of all emergency department visits resulting from overdoses from an ingredient found in many cough syrups, dextromethorphan (DXM), were patients 12-20 years old.

Prescription drugs are easy to get and often free to teens.  All they have to do is walk out of their bedroom and look in the medicine cabinet.  For OTC drugs, they simply go to the nearest supermarket.  They can also get prescription drugs from friends at school, who have brought them from home or stolen them from family, friends, or relatives.  The internet is another access point for teens to get prescription or OTC drugs.  There are many illegal websites that don’t require a prescription or a medical evaluation.  These sites are willing to sell to anyone, including children.

So what are some reasons teens use?

Because teens mistakenly believe it is a “safe high”, and because it is readily available to them from the home medicine cabinet or from friends.  In fact, two in five teens 40 percent or 9.4 million agree that prescription medicines, even if they are not prescribed by a doctor, are “much safer” to use than illegal drugs. 

Some other reasons include:

  • To Get High – Teens want to escape reality and relieve boredom.  They also feel pressure to use in order to preserve friendships and romantic relationships.
  • To Enhance Performance – Competing for college admission, including competition for Advanced Placement and Honors courses in high school can be very stressful.  Some students think that stimulants, such as Ritalin, help them study for long hours.
  • To Cope – The pressure of school, work, grades, and extracurricular activities like sports and clubs is difficult for most teens to balance.  On top of day-to-day pressures, adolescent development brings a vast array of emotions and moods that can be difficult for teens to navigate.  As a result, teens may turn to prescription drugs to manage their daily routine, like regularly taking depressant to go to sleep and stimulants to stay awake.

Depressants, stimulants, pain killers, and steroids are the types of drugs that teens are abusing. 

While health effects vary by individual, they include liver cysts and cancer, kidney cancer, jaundice, severe acne, and hair loss.

To find out more about prescription and OTC drug abuse, visit:

This website offers parents much information including how to safeguard your child, danger zones, and the top 5 tips you can do to help prevent prescription and OTC drug abuse.