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Why the Abuse of Legal Drugs May Be Even More Dangerous for Our Nation’s Youth

Most parents understand that teenagers are likely to push their boundaries, to experiment at a young age. While parents are often concerned about possible issues with illicit substances such as cocaine or heroin, the ‘legal’ type of drug abuse can be far more dangerous. Prescription opioids are overshadowing any other drug in the nation when it comes to fatal overdoses. Why are these prescription drugs so dangerous and what has made them such an appealing option for so many teens?

Ignorance is Bliss

Legal Drugs

For many teens, they have been told their entire life that ‘drugs are bad’. They may have mixed feelings about the legal status of marijuana; but the vast majority of teenagers realize that heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other dangerous illicit substances are not only addictive, but may even prove fatal in the event of an (accidental) overdose. Meanwhile, prescription drug abuse is viewed in a different light. Because these are prescribed medications, most teenagers (mistakenly) assume that they cannot possibly be as dangerous as actual illicit substances.

What are the Hidden Dangers?

There are a number of dangerous elements when it comes to a prescription drug addiction that can easily stem from abusing prescription painkillers. The following three hidden dangers may lead to problems with the user’s health, including their physical and mental well-being.

  • Dependence on the drug - Even though many teens do not perceive it as a major problem, it is possible to develop a psychological and physical addiction to prescription drugs. This means that the moment the person stops taking these substances, they will begin to suffer emotional and physical withdrawal symptoms. Even though the symptoms are often not life threatening, they are uncomfortable enough to cause the person to relapse back into the use of the drug in order to stop these negative sensations.
  • An increased tolerance - The more a person uses, the more likely they are to develop a tolerance to the foreign substance they keep putting in their bodies. This means that a long-term user who has developed a tolerance is going to need to use more and more of the same medication in order to get the desired effect. This is especially true with opiate-based painkillers such as Vicodin or OxyContin – two very popular medications that are often abused. A person who struggles with dependence may need two pills in order to obtain that same euphoric effect that they once had with a single capsule. The more the person takes, the more dangerous it becomes for their body – and the more difficult it becomes to stop.
  • A potential overdose – Unfortunately, the statistics do not lie; many families have found out in the most heartbreaking way that an overdose can strike without warning. Because of the built-up tolerance for a specific medication, the user often ends up taking far more than any doctor would ever prescribe them, legally. Even those who were otherwise healthy and strong have experienced accidental overdoses of opiates and stimulants. Many people assume that because a medication is ‘legal,’ it must be safer, when in fact, that is furthest from the truth.

How to Identify Problematic Behavior

The most important thing that any parent or caregiver can do when it comes to stopping the abuse of prescription medication is to be aware of what behavior would indicate that there is a problem. Even though the following behaviors may have other causes, if you identify more than one or two it may be a good idea to be keenly aware of what is going on:

  • Euphoric behavior - People use opiate-based painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin to experience the euphoric effects that result when taking the medication. However, as the tolerance increases, the initial euphoric effects begin to lessen. This means that more of the same substance is necessary in order to achieve the desired sensations.
  • Aches and pains – When a doctor recommends opiate painkillers, the user has to follow the instructions on the label in order to maintain the right balance in his or her system. However, recreational users often go without the prescription medication for some time because they are unable to buy it for whatever reason. During this time, you may notice that the user experiences nagging aches and pains and develops moderate illnesses. The reason is that substances alter the chemical component of the brain that is responsible for regulating pain and illness. As the body becomes used to having these chemicals, a sudden withdrawal of the chemicals will throw the body into chaos.
  • Irritability and mood swings - Because of the aforementioned altering function of the brain, not having that chemical in the user’s system may lead to irritability or anxiety. Once the person receives his or her ‘fix,’ the body’s chemical balance once again returns to normal, which would lead in the mood swings becoming less pronounced.
  • Withdrawal from friends and family - There is very little difference between an addiction to legal substances and one to illegal substances. Those who are addicted to opioid painkillers will often withdraw from their friends and their families. This allows them to focus on what matters to them now (feeding their addiction) rather than engage in activities they once found fulfilling. Remember that for many people struggling with dependence, nothing matters more than getting what they need to feel good.
  • Unethical behavior - Dependence on narcotics, whether legal or illegal can result in someone engaging in unethical behavior. This is not just limited to taking money or medication from someone, but may also refer to “doctor shopping.” This means going from doctor to doctor to obtain prescriptions for an actual illness or disease that the person may or may not have.

Drug Awareness and Information

As previously mentioned, warnings about illicit substances are indoctrinated into our youth’s brain from a very early age. However, these forms of pain-relieving medications do not carry the same stigma. Because of that, it is easy to see why young adults would consider these alternatives ‘safer’ than the illicit substances they have been warned against their entire lives. In order to change the abuse, it is important to change the perspective and reinforce the fact that prescription medication can come with some extremely dangerous side effects when not taken as instructed and only used on a temporary basis.