Grissom column: 'Pharm' abuse common among teens

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 12, 2008

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York recently released a survey, which shows more teens are abusing prescription medication than virtually any other drug. Data from the Partnership for a Drug Free America’s annual tracking study suggests:
– One in five teens has abused a prescription pain medication.
– One in five reports abusing prescription stimulants and tranquilizers.
– One in 10 has abused cough medication.
The report found that children, as young as 12 years of age, are experimenting with prescription drugs non-medically to “get high” or to “self-medicate.” It is frightening that teens seem to think taking prescription drugs is safer.
In the Rowan-Salisbury School System, we are finding more and more students, both middle and high school students, not only misusing these prescription drugs, but also selling them to classmates. It has become a very serious problem for our schools and for our community, and it is happening on a regular basis. It is occurring in all social, economic, geographic and ethnic groups.
Students are choosing prescription drugs because they are more easily available, often stolen from the medicine cabinet at home. Students make the mistake of assuming doctor-prescribed drugs are safer than drugs bought on the streets. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Some students are using online pharmacies to obtain dangerous and addictive drugs. The Internet has proved to be an easy, accessible method of obtaining medicine. Students often mix several different medications together without having any idea of what they are doing. Students may even crush the pills and “snort” them to have an more intensified effect. Students can find prescription drugs in the homes of their relatives or their friends. It is not unusual for students to share drugs with their friends.
Painkillers are the most common prescription drugs used and sold by teens, such as codeine, OxyContin, Vicodin and Demerol. A large single dose of these drugs can cause severe respiratory depression or even death in teens. Other prescription drugs that are commonly abused are stimulants, sedatives and tranquilizers.
Some over-the-counter products are also being used for non-medical reasons, such as cough and cold medicines. Two additional drugs that are being misused in our community are Ritalin and Xanax.
A number of teens have indicated that they have participated in “pharm parties.” Pharm is short for pharmaceuticals and “pharming” is collecting pills from the family medicine chest. At pharming parties, teens will bring various prescription drugs to the party and everyone will toss the pills into a bowl. Teens will then take fistfuls of the drugs without having any idea as to the kind of medication that they may be taking.
Students can become addicted to prescription medication. Drug addiction happens in stages. Only a trained health professional can accurately assess and offer the best treatment to be used. Some prescription drugs need to be stopped slowly to be sure withdrawal is safe.
What can parents do to help? Parents need to look for signs and symptoms of drug use. Short-term effects that have been reported are headaches, loss of coordination, impaired judgment, loss of consciousness, panic attacks, dizziness and nausea.
Long-term effects could be addiction, insomnia, restlessness or even death, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Use.
Parents need to talk to their children about the dangers associated with taking prescription and over-the-counter medications without doctors’ knowledge.
It is important that parents keep a watchful eye on all medications in the home and notice if any are missing. Any medications that are no longer being used should be destroyed. Medications should be kept in a safe place, not accessible to teens or young children in the household.
Ask friends and relatives, especially grandparents, to make sure that their prescription drugs are not located in an accessible place. We must all work together to be vigilant in helping our students know and understand how to keep safe from harmful medications.
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Dr. Judy Grissom is superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury School System.