Prescription Drug Use among Teens on the Decline


Written by Caroline Capriccio, Wellspring Intern

Results published from the 2018 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey found a decrease in prescription opioid use among teenagers over the past year.

For instance, the MTF found that use of prescription narcotics among 12th graders decreased from 4.2% in 2017 to 3.4% in 2018. Additionally, past year use of specific prescription narcotics such as OxyContin and Vicodin also decreased among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, compared with levels five years ago.

According to the survey, misuse of some of the more popular prescription opioid medications is at historic lows among teens in school. Past-year misuse of the Rx opioid Vicodin dropped to just 1.7 %, and this reflects a long-term decline from a peak of 10.5% in 2003.

The past year misuse of prescription/OTC drugs among 12th graders in 2018 were:

  • Sedatives/Tranquilizers: 5.0%
  • Adderall®: 4.6%
  • Opioids: 3.4%
  • Cough/cold medicine: 3.4%
  • Ritalin®: 0.9%

When asked how they obtained prescription drugs for non-medical use, around 60% of teens said they either bought or received drugs from a friend or relative. As a result, parents should safeguard medicines in their home and get rid of medicines that are out of date.

Research has shown that many teens who use abuse prescription drugs are not trying to get high, but are using them to help deal with anxiety. Because prescription drugs are designed to help with physical or emotional conditions, many teenagers are using them to help with a specific problem, such as lessening anxiety, staying awake to study, or losing weight. Additionally, research has found that many teens believe prescription drugs are less risky to use than illicit drugs such as marijuana or cocaine. A teen’s decision about whether to try a drug is strongly associated with their perception of the drug’s risk. Thus, because these drugs are prescribed from a doctor, teens find them less risky.

Teens who misuse prescription drugs are more likely to report use of other drugs. Multiple studies have revealed associations between prescription drug misuse and higher rates of cigarette smoking; heavy episodic drinking; and marijuana, cocaine, and other illicit drug use. In the case of prescription opioids, receiving a legitimate prescription for these drugs during adolescence is also associated with a greater risk of future opioid misuse, particularly in young adults who have little to no history of drug use

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