The source of our country’s fastest-growing drug problem may be as close as the home medicine cabinet. More people now die from prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medication abuse than from cocaine, heroin and ecstasy combined.
And that includes teens and young adults who would never dream of using illegal drugs. One reason is the easy availability of these medications. In fact most of them are free and accessible from the medicine cabinets of friends, relatives – or even in their own home.
Teens and young adults often raid their parents’ medicine cabinets before going to “pharm parties,” where a pocketful of pills is the price of admission. The pills that go into a bowl for sharing can be a mixture of anything, including medications for pain, high blood pressure or depression.
During 2009 and 2010, 61 local teens were admitted into the CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit as a result of overdose on prescription and over-the-counter medications, illegal substances and alcohol, as well as combination mixes of these substances. CHOC nurses noticed and decided to find out why. As part of their investigation, they reviewed the pain medication prescriptions that hospital physicians were writing for patients undergoing minor procedures. They discovered that these prescriptions were often written for larger amounts than actually needed.
Our nurses started a community health campaign that reached out to physicians and nurses in addition to local parents and teens. Part of their goal was to reduce the availability of excess pain medication sitting in home medicine cabinets within the local community.
“When we showed our physicians how many kids were being admitted and what they were taking, they were very surprised,” said Karen Caiozzo, R.N. “More than 90 percent said they would change how they write prescriptions as a result.”
CHOC nurses also developed a hospital form tracking how many pain pills are actually taken during the 24 hours prior to discharge. This tool helps physicians better estimate the amount of pain medication actually needed later at home.
Now our nurses are sharing their results with the rest of the country. This past spring, they were invited to give poster presentations to both the Society of Pediatric Nursing, in Houston, and the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (NAPNAP), in San Antonio. Additionally, this presentation has become an online continuing education course on the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board, a website for certified nurses and nurse practitioners across the country.
What You Can Do Now
- Talk to your teen about prescription and OTC drug abuse. Be sure your teen understands that buying or using prescription medication without a doctor’s order is dangerous — and illegal.
- Take charge of all medications. Keep your family’s medications in a secure location. Set clear rules about taking the correct dosage at the right time. Ask friends and family to keep their prescription and OTC medications in a safe place, too.
- Explain the purpose of each prescribed or OTC medication, including possible side effects. Stress that it is both illegal and dangerous to share these medications with friends.
- Get to know your teen’s friends and their parents. Make sure you are all on the same page when it comes to drugs, alcohol and medications.
- Check with your teen’s school. Are they including prescription and OTC medications when teaching about substance abuse?
- Discard all old and unneeded medications. Mix discarded medications with either used coffee grounds or kitty litter, add hot water, then place in the garbage. Never flush them.
“You’ll be amazed when you look through your own medicine cabinet,” Karen Caiozzo, R.N., said. “People tend to save drugs thinking they might need them later and forget about them, but that’s where 70 percent of these abused medications are coming from. It’s a scary statistic.”