Question of the Week

September 19, 2005


For years, parents have worried that their teens (and pre-teens) will abuse alcohol and/ or illegal street drugs. Teens often worry about friends who they think will make choices while under the influence of something... and later regret what was done. Most have heard about the dangers of smoking, drinking, and using illegal drugs.

So, what about "drugs" that are "safe" because they are obtained from a doctor or pharmacy?

"Thursday, July 7, 2005; 1:30 PM
Abuse of prescription drugs is 'epidemic,' with teenagers the fastest growing group of new abusers, yet the problem has not drawn adequate attention from health and law enforcement agencies, physicians, pharmacists and parents, according to a study released today. Abusers of prescription drugs -- 15.1 million people -- exceed the combined number abusing cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants and heroin, the report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University said."
Washington Post

While access to illegal street drugs may be more difficult in some areas, access to alcohol and prescription medications (which are legal when prescribed and taken under the care of a doctor) is often more consistent.

"'Availability is the mother of abuse,' said Joseph A. Califano Jr., the center's chairman and former U.S. secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. 'When I was young my parents would lock their liquor cabinet. It may be parents should be thinking of locking their medicine cabinets.' ... 'Add in that we're inventing more and better and more powerful drugs of all these types all the time and you have to see that there are going to be more substances available, not fewer...'"
Washington Post

But we are talking about "medicine" right? Not "drugs"?

A drug is:

"(1) : a substance recognized in an official pharmacopoeia or formulary
(2) : a substance intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease (3) : a substance other than food intended to affect the structure or function of the body"

While a drug can treat and prevent disease if used properly, in doing so it is affecting "the structure or function of the body." When used for purposes other than those for which it was designed -- and in ways that manufacturers and doctors never intended -- "the structure or function of the body" can be affected in ways that can cause health problems rather than solve them.

"Many abuse prescription drugs on the misunderstanding that they are safe, when in fact they can cause addiction and severe side effects. Opiate-based pain relievers are quite addictive and can slow breathing to potentially deadly slow levels, said John K. Jenkins, MD ... Kyle Moores, a 19-year-old who is recovering from prescription drug addiction, spoke about the price that he paid. A friend offered him prescription pain relievers for free, but then as his dependency grew, so did the price. In time, he was paying $50 a pill and maxing out credit cards to continue his habit. That's when he knew he had to get help. 'I didn‚t have anything left,' he says."

"...they can cause addiction and severe side effects..."

"Prescription drugs are readily available and can easily be obtained by teenagers who abuse these drugs to experience a variety of desired effects. Often these young people are unaware of the serious health risks involved in abusing prescription drugs."

For example:

"Opioids/pain relievers [such as] Dilaudid, Lorcet, Lortab, OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan, Tylox, Vicodin [are prescribed for] Pain, cough, diarrhea [and are responsible for adverse effects, such as] Life-threatening respiratory depression.

"Depressants (benzodiazepines, tranquilizers, barbiturates, sedatives) [such as] Valium, Xanax [are prescribed for] Anxiety, sleep disorders [and are responsible for adverse effects, such as] Seizures, respiratory depression, decreased heart rate.

"Stimulants [such as] Adderall, Concerta, Ritalin [are prescribed for] Narcolepsy, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, obesity [and are responsible for adverse effects, such as] High body temperature, irregular heart rate, cardiovascular system failure, fatal seizures, hostility or feelings of paranoia"

These medications can be responsible for adverse effects, such as:
"Life-threatening respiratory depression..."
"Seizures, respiratory depression, decreased heart rate..."
"High body temperature, irregular heart rate, cardiovascular system failure, fatal seizures, hostility or feelings of paranoia..."

Too much information? Let's focus on one medication most teens have at least heard about, and to which many have easy access: Ritalin.

"High doses of stimulants produce a predictable set of symptoms that include loss of appetite (may cause serious malnutrition), tremors and muscle twitching, fevers, convulsions, and headaches (may be severe), irregular heartbeat and respirations (may be profound and life threatening), anxiety, restlessness, paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions, excessive repetition of movements and meaningless tasks, and formicaton (sensation of bugs or worms crawling under the skin)."

"Short-term effects can include nervousness and insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, palpitations, headaches, changes in heart rate and blood pressure (usually elevation of both, but occasionally depression), skin rashes and itching, abdominal pain, weight loss, and digestive problems, toxic psychosis, psychotic episodes, drug dependence syndrome, and severe depression upon withdrawal."

Some may take the medication as directed by the doctor andmay experience adverse effects. Some may take a medication and benefit greatly. Some may see their medications as a "harmless" way to make some quick money on the side.

"In December 2001 a 17-year-old Georgia resident was indicted on manslaughter and reckless conduct charges for supplying OxyContin to a 15-year-old who died from an overdose of the drug."

Questions of the Week:
Why do you think that prescription medications are thought of as safer than traditional street drugs? In what ways are they safer? In what ways might they be more dangerous? How can teachers, parents, and doctors help teens understand the risks associated with misuse of prescription medications? What role can you and your peers play in helping to educate your friends and family members? Whose responsibility should it be to get this information to teens?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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