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    Medicine Abuse: What’s Happening & Why

    The misuse and abuse of prescription medicine has helped drive the current addiction epidemic, with problematic behavior often beginning during the teen and young adult years.

    What is going on?

    Used as prescribed or directed, medicine improves our lives. When misused and abused, the consequences can be devastating, particularly among teens.

    1 in 4 teens reports having misused or abused a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime.[1]


    As a nation, we’ve become familiar — and comfortable — with the common use of prescription (Rx) and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines. As new medicines for alleviating symptoms come to market, they are heavily marketed and advertised, raising our awareness of the conditions they treat. As a result, many have grown up associating medicine with solving problems — and have a heightened awareness of their use.

    Two-thirds (66 percent) of teens who report abuse of prescription pain relievers are getting them from friends, family and acquaintances.[2]


    While some teens abuse medicine to party and get high, many are using medicine to manage stress or regulate their lives. Some are abusing prescription stimulants to provide additional energy and increase their ability to focus when they’re studying or taking tests. Others are abusing pain relievers, tranquilizers and over-the-counter cough medicine to cope with academic, social or emotional stress.

    Teens and other young adults don’t necessarily see this behavior as risky. Many believe that since medicine is created and tested in a scientific environment it is therefore safer to use than illicit drugs.

    How is this affecting teens and young adults?

    There are real dangers to medicine abuse, just as there are with illicit drugs. Young adults who abuse prescription medicine can experience dramatic increases in blood pressure and heart rate, organ damage, difficulty breathing, seizures, addiction and even death.

    Nearly 80 percent of people who inject heroin start by abusing Rx drugs.[3]


    The abuse of prescription opioid pain medicine (like OxyContin, Percocet, fentanyl and others) is also linked to increases in the use of illicit heroin, helping drive the addiction epidemic.

    What can we do?

    We know that young people who learn about the dangers of drugs and alcohol early and often are much less likely to develop addiction than those who do not receive these critical messages at home. Unfortunately, our research shows that parents are not communicating the risks of prescription medicine abuse to their children as often as they talk about other drugs. This is partly because some parents are unaware of the behavior (which wasn’t as prevalent when they were teenagers), and partly because those who are aware of medicine abuse tend to underestimate the risks — just as teens and young people themselves do.

    Together, parents and other caregivers, healthcare providers, community leaders and educators can all make a difference and end medicine abuse.

    Last Updated

    September 2023