Compared to other drugs parents worry about their teens using, prescription
painkillers may seem more innocuous than cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine.
But these pain pills, also called opioids, are in fact very dangerous, says
Sandra Mathur, DO, a board-certified pediatrician at
St. Jude Heritage Medical Group in Diamond Bar.
“Painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin are very insidious because
teens think they’re not ‘bad’ drugs--a 2013 study found
that 27 percent of teens thought opioids were safer than street drugs
and 33 percent said these pills were fine to take for pain even if they
didn’t have a prescription for them, which is an easy way to start
misusing them,” Dr. Mathur says. “Plus, they can be easy to
obtain from a friend or parent’s medicine cabinet, and it’s
easy to get hooked on them quickly. While their main function, when prescribed
properly, is to block pain signals from reaching the brain, opioids also
affect the brain and trigger pleasure--to get that feeling again, a person
will want to take the drug again. Chasing that euphoria can become a path
And that addiction can move beyond painkillers. In a recent survey of about
68,000 U.S. high school seniors published in
Drug and Alcohol Dependence, two-thirds of respondents who said they used heroin stated that they
first started out using prescription painkillers. “Because opioids
and heroin are both derived from opium and offer similar highs, painkillers
can serve as kind of a gateway drug to heroin,” Dr. Mathur says.
The same survey also found that more than 12 percent of students said they
use pain pills, although data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s
Monitoring the Future study reported lower figures for high school seniors
for certain opioids--4.4 percent of students used Vicodin in the past
year and 3.7 percent used OxyContin. “In either case, there are
still too many teens who are illegally taking prescription painkillers--in
terms of substance abuse, they’re only outranked by cigarettes,
alcohol and marijuana,” Dr. Mathur says.
While teens may focus on the happy feelings brought on by opioids, there
are other effects the drugs have on the body that aren’t so nice.
“Painkillers can cause nausea and breathing problems and the mind
can feel muddled and confused,” Dr. Mathur says. “They’re
also dangerous if a teen is drinking while on pain pills, because the
combined effect can impair breathing so severely that it could become
To prevent opioid abuse, parents should follow these tips:
If there is any prescription medication in the house, keep it in a locked
cabinet that kids can’t access. If the medication is no longer being used, parents should consult with
their pharmacist on the safest method of disposal; they can also take
advantage of the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day (slated for
April 30, 2016) and bring pills to a law enforcement-sanctioned collection site.
If a child is prescribed prescription pain medication, parents should talk
with their doctor or pharmacist to understand the proper dosage directions,
as well as warning signs of drug dependency. Parents may also want to ask about alternative medications if they want
to avoid painkillers.
Parents should talk with their kids about the hazards of drug use and how
it can keep them from accomplishing their life goals. As part of the conversation, parents should make sure their child knows
prescription pain pills are just as dangerous as street drugs. “Parents
shouldn’t forget to listen during these talks, and they should give
their teen the chance to ask questions or discuss any fears or issues
they are dealing with,” Dr. Mathur says. “Open communication
and parental involvement can help teens make wise choices when it comes
to substance abuse.”
Learn more about
St. Jude Heritage Medical Group. Learn more about
April 30 is National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. You can turn in unused
or expired prescriptions for safe disposal at a collection site approved
by local law enforcement. To locate a collection site near you, click
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical
care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.