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There’s a reason that prescription drugs are intended to be taken under the direction of a doctor: if used improperly they can be dangerous. Teens are making the decision to abuse prescription medicines based on misinformation. In fact, many people think that abusing prescription drugs is safer than abusing illicit drugs. As the facts will tell you, prescription drugs can have dangerous short- and long-term health consequences when used incorrectly or by someone other than for whom they were intended.

Prescription drug abuse is when someone takes a medication that was prescribed for someone else or takes their own prescription in a manner or dosage other than what was prescribed. Abuse can include taking a friend’s or relative’s prescription to get high, to treat pain, or because you think it will help with studying.

Opioids (such as the pain relievers OxyContin and Vicodin), central nervous system depressants (e.g., Xanax, Valium), and stimulants (e.g., Concerta, Adderall) are the most commonly abused prescription drugs. Drugs available without a prescription—also known as over-the-counter drugs—can also be abused. DXM (dextromethorphan), the active cough suppressant found in many over-the-counter cough and cold medications, is one example. It is sometimes abused to get high, which requires large doses (more than what is on the package instructions) that can be dangerous.

Among youth who are 12 to 17 years old, 7.4 percent reported past-year nonmedical use of prescription medications. According to the 2011 Monitoring the Future survey, prescription and over-the-counter drugs are among the most commonly abused drugs by 12th graders, after alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco. Youth who abuse prescription medications are also more likely to report use of other drugs.

Many people think that abusing prescription drugs is safer than abusing illicit drugs like heroin because the manufacturing of prescription drugs is regulated or because they are prescribed by doctors. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean that these drugs are safe for someone who was not prescribed the drug or when they are taken in ways other than as prescribed.

Prescription drugs can have powerful effects in the brain and body, and they act on the same brain sites as illicit drugs. Opioid painkillers act on the same sites in the brain as heroin; prescription stimulants have effects in common with cocaine. And people sometimes take the medications in ways that can be very dangerous in both the short and long term (e.g., crushing pills and snorting or injecting the contents). Also, abusing prescription drugs is illegal—and that includes sharing prescriptions with friends.