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It’s Medicine, So How Can It Be Bad for Me?

May 31, 2013  |  Falmouth Enterprise

By Dr. Michael Bihari

(This is an edited version of an article that was published in Stay Smart, Don’t Start, that was distributed with the Washington Post.)

The good news: research has shown that fewer teenagers are using illicit street drugs. The bad news: the studies also show that teens are abusing prescription drugs and over-the-counter (OTC) medications at an alarming rate. 

Taking prescription medication not prescribed for you, or allowing someone else to take your prescription medication, is not only against the law—it is dangerous.

Prescription and OTC drugs are legal medications that provide real benefits when taken as directed. But, when abused, these drugs can have devastating consequences. 

A Doctor Prescribed It So Why Is It Dangerous?

You may wonder how a medication that makes your parent, grandparent, or friend feel better could possibly be harmful. When taken as directed and in the correct dosage by people who need them for a particular condition, medication can be extremely effective and there may be few, if any, side effects. 

But teens who abuse prescription and OTC drugs to get high often take far more of the medications than people who take them as directed. That means the intended effects of the medicines are greatly exaggerated, as well as the potential side effects. 

Pharming Parties

Many teens who abuse medications take several different types of pills at the same time and often combine them with alcohol for a “heightened” effect. The “candy dish” at a party or “pharming parties,” as they are called, where people bring a variety of prescription and OTC medications, randomly place them in a bowl and mix them up, and then take turns downing one or more pills—often mixing them with alcohol. 

For the most part, no one has any idea what the pills are or what effects taking a handful will have. As you probably know from chemistry class, mixing certain chemicals can have surprising results. The same is true when you mix drugs and alcohol. Your body is no place for a chemistry experiment, and the “surprise” result is just not worth the risk it poses to your health and your life.

Prescription Drug Abuse

The most abused prescription drugs are painkillers (also called opiates or opioids). Opiates like morphine and codeine are prescribed when people are in a great deal of pain. They are meant to be used only for a short time.  

Use of painkillers for non-medical reasons is drug abuse. Opiates affect your brain and spinal cord and continued use can make your brain dependent on them. Once someone is hooked on prescription painkillers, stopping them means going through a very unpleasant withdrawal. And, large doses, especially when combined with alcohol, can be fatal. 

Another type of prescription drug that is often abused is stimulants. People who say, “I can’t get going until I have my morning coffee” are dependent on caffeine, a mild stimulant. Prescription stimulants, such as Ritalin and Adderall are used to treat people with ADHD. Stimulants can increase brain activity, raise blood pressure, and increase heart rate and breathing rate.   

If you abuse stimulants and become addicted, you might experience a severely high body temperature, irregularities in heartbeat, and possibly a heart attack or seizure. Withdrawing from addiction to stimulants is like diving into a deep, black pool of depression.

OTC Cough Medicine Abuse

When you are at home sick with a cough, your parents may give you OTC cough medication to help you feel better. The most commonly abused OTC cough medication is dextromethorphan (also called “Dex,” “DXM,” “Robo,” “Skittles,” “Tussin” and “Triple Cs”). 

Understanding the effects of abusing “Dex” should be enough to make you back off: confusion, dizziness, blurred vision, slurred speech, lack of coordination, stomach pain, nausea and vomiting, rapid heartbeat and not knowing who or where you are. Don’t listen to anyone who says it’s a great high. It isn’t.

Why Take the Risk?

Why would anyone take the risk of experimenting with prescription and OTC drugs? You may think that if your parents, grandparents, or friends take them, or if you can buy them at the drugstore, they must not be harmful. You might believe that the drugs will make your life run more smoothly or that you will fit in better with your peers. If “everyone is doing it,” it is often hard to see that it’s still wrong.

If you are abusing prescription drugs or OTC medications, you may have trouble at home and at school. Relationships with your friends and family can suffer, and there is a much greater likelihood that you will commit a crime or be a victim of one. Whether they come from the drugstore or your family medicine cabinet, using drugs for the wrong reasons poses serious risks to your health, your life and your future.

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