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How to talk to your kids about prescription drug abuse

Colin By Colin Groundwater

mother and teenage daughter on couch

“Teens often have the feeling, ‘It won’t happen to me,’” says Lynne Kain, an Aetna case manager who counsels young drug users. Having seen the toll that addiction takes on families, Kain knows how important it is for parents to talk to their children about prescription drugs. “I am very open with my two teenage boys,” she says. “They know what type of work I do, and we discuss how drugs can affect every part of your life.”

But for the average parent, talking about drugs is intimidating. News reports on America’s opioid epidemic can make it sound unstoppable: Prescription drugs are now the leading cause of addiction and overdose. And 1 in 5 high school seniors has taken a prescription drug for a nonmedical purpose.

However, there is cause for cautious optimism. Prevention efforts are credited with reducing teen use of opioid painkillers by 45% in recent years. The takeaway: Parents can make a difference. As part of Aetna’s commitment to cutting opioid misuse in half over the next five years, here is our parent’s guide to teens and opioids.

What are opioids?

Until recently, the term “drug use” typically referred to illegal substances like cocaine, heroin or crystal meth. Today’s teens are more likely to get hooked on prescription medication, especially painkillers. Opioids are a class of highly effective pain relievers that includes oxycodone (brand names: OxyContin, Percocet), hydrocodone (brand name: Vicodin) and fentanyl. Teens most often receive opioid prescriptions after dental procedures – like wisdom tooth removal – and sports injuries.

But prescription opioids have downsides that make them prone to abuse. They can produce feelings of euphoria, like their chemical cousins heroin and morphine. And their effectiveness fades quickly. Within months, a patient can be taking dangerously high doses to feel the same relief.

If your child is prescribed opioids for pain relief after an injury or surgery, it’s important to be aware of the facts and to take an active role in their recovery. Here’s how:

Talk frankly with your child’s doctor, dentist and pharmacist.

No parent wants to see their child in pain. To ensure yours receives the proper aftercare, get the facts from your health care provider. Ask about the standard recovery time for your son or daughter’s procedure, how much medication is necessary, and when your teen should stop taking the pills.

Know the options for pain relief.

Opioid painkillers are rarely necessary after wisdom tooth removal, according to Dave Thomas, PhD, a health scientist administrator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “NSAIDs work as well or better in those situations,” he says. The American Dental Association also recommends simple NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, as the first line of pain therapy after dental procedures.

Alternative pain-management techniques can boost the effectiveness of over-the-counter drugs, especially in young people. Options include icepacks, distraction (video games, TV), massage, mindfulness, even old-fashioned TLC. (Learn more about how emotions affect recovery.)

Talk with your kids.

Getting through to teens isn’t always easy. Pick a time when you’re both relaxed and focused. Go in with some talking points to anchor the conversation. For example:

  • Calmly explain the dangers. Many teens assume that drugs that are prescribed by a doctor and come from a pharmacy must be safe. But opioids pose special risks. The difference between the prescribed dose and an overdose can be very small. Opioids also seriously impair your ability to drive. And it’s hard for doctors and patients to know when regular use switches to addiction ― until you try to quit. “That is when they realize they have a problem,” says Kain of the addicts she’s worked with. “They had never tried to stop before and thought it was just ‘recreational’ use up to that point.”Citing celebrity examples may help teenagers understand the gravity of the problem, according to Diane Tanaka, MD, medical director of Teenage and Young Adult Health, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. The musician Prince and actor Heath Ledger both died from accidental overdoses of prescription opioids.  
  • Urge them not to share medication. “Never take somebody else’s medication, and don’t ever give your medication to others,” says Tanaka. Dosage is highly individual: What’s safe for one person can be dangerous for another. And opioids can be deadly when mixed with other common medications, such as anti-anxiety and insomnia drugs.  
  • Use your own words, not clichés. “I feel that catch phrases like ‘Just say no,’ are outdated with the teen population of today,” says Kain. “Concrete facts and examples resonate more and show you are respecting their intelligence.”

Maintain control of your child’s painkillers.

Even responsible teens or those managing their medication for other conditions should not be allowed to control their painkillers. “Parents should closely supervise opioid use, keeping the bottle in their possession at all times and giving the medication only as needed,” says Harold Paz, MD, Aetna’s chief medical officer. Store pills in a safe place where they aren’t readily accessible, like a lock box or a lockable drawer.

Know what to do with extra medication.

Doctors and dentists typically prescribe more medication than is needed during recovery. The practice, known as “overprescribing,” is considered a major contributor to the opioid crisis. Parents should avoid leaving leftover pills in the medicine cabinet.

“Unused medication should be disposed of immediately to prevent misuse,” says Dr. Paz. “Many pharmacies enable you to return excess pills. And unlike many medications, opioids don’t harm the water supply, so the FDA and EPA approve of flushing them down the toilet.” Local police departments and pharmacy schools may collect leftover painkillers.

If your doctor or dentist recommends opioid painkillers for your teen, it is possible to use them safely. Work with your doctor to ensure your child takes the least amount possible for the shortest period of time necessary. Talk to your children about the dangers of prescription drugs. And get rid of extra painkillers as soon as possible. Learn more about Aetna’s commitment to combatting opioid addiction.

About the author

Colin Groundwater is a writer from New Jersey living in Brooklyn. He’s training to run a half-marathon.