Let's help keep kids from abusing medication

May 2, 2008

It's time we did our part to eradicate our country's No. 1 public health enemy.

The home medicine cabinet is a significant area of concern. Young people have virtually unlimited access to anything in it.

Prescription drugs are usually kept in the medicine cabinet, but they're also left on night tables, in the kitchen, or in various other places around the house. Many adolescents don't know-or care-how dangerous these medications can be and often decide to try them out.

When teenagers are asked how they decide which drug to take from the medicine chest, they might reply: "Any drug that has a warning label like 'don't drive.' That means the drug could mess your head up. I want to mess my head up, so that's the pill I'm taking."

As physicians, we need to educate ourselves, our patients, and our children. Here are some things we can do:

Talk to young patients about the dangers of drug misuse. Whenever medications that might be misused are prescribed for young people, it is essential that we give them as much information as possible about the drugs. Besides reviewing the side effects, discuss the dangers of overuse. Stress the need to keep the medications safely away from other children in the house, and warn about not sharing the drugs with their friends. Tell kids to inform their parents right away if they notice pills are missing.

Educate parents about the problem of drug abuse from medications in the home. Emphasize to parents that children might experiment with their medications. Discuss the side effects of each drug and the possibility of misuse and addiction. Remind parents to place potentially dangerous medications in an area that's not accessible to children and young adults.

Teach parents the signs of drug misuse and when to suspect it. Obviously, running out of pills before the next prescription date should be a red flag. And tell parents to watch for behavioral changes. Most children like to spend time alone in their rooms, but too much solitude is a sign of potential drug abuse.

Make sure parents know how to keep medications safe. Discuss the care of medication in the home. Do not leave potentially addicting medications (or any other type) in an easily accessible area such as a kitchen or bathroom counter. Another simple tip is to tell patients to discard pain medications when they're no longer needed. You might also give patients a preprinted information sheet with these pointers.

Write scripts for the length of time the patient will need to use the medication. That way excess medication does not sit around the house.

Many experts call substance abuse the No. 1 public health enemy in the US. As physicians, we need to make sure we are not unwittingly contributing to this problem.