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What’s in your medicine cabinet?

Medications in your home can be addictive and dangerous

Medications in your home can be addictive and dangerous

Finding out your child is experimenting with drugs can be one of the scariest problems you have to face as a parent. Even more frightening is that many times it can be happening right under your nose and you don’t even realize it.

Not only has drug use been reaching younger and younger age groups over the years, the types of drugs kids are getting into have evolved as well. If you’re not familiar with current trends, you have no idea what to watch out for. According to the professionals, it’s crucial to be aware of what drugs are available to your children, to know the warning signs of abuse, and, most importantly, to start talking to your children about drugs.

Kids getting into drugs at younger ages

Drug use among teens and young adults has actually been on the decline, according to Adrienne Marcus, Ph.D., executive director of the Lexington Center for Recovery of Dutchess and Westchester counties.

“Thankfully all of our prevention has been working,” she says. But that doesn’t mean we should take drug abuse lightly; it’s still happening even though it’s on a downward slope. And it’s happening with kids who aren’t even teenagers yet – some as young as 9 or 10. Nick Roes, Ph.D. is executive director of New Hope Manor, a women’s residential substance abuse treatment community in Barryville.

He says he’s seen patients with long-term substance dependency who are only 12 and 13 – and children who started getting addicted at age 7 and 8. “There’s not that period of innocence anymore like when I was a kid. Kids are starting to grow up at a younger age. That’s why we need to address the issue sooner rather than later.”

Drugs in the home are most dangerous for your kids

Worse, it’s drugs found right in our homes that kids are experimenting with. The Partnership for a Drug Free America reports that one in five teens has taken a prescription drug without having a prescription for it themselves. Because of their ready availability, over-the-counter and prescription drugs that you keep in your medicine cabinet are the most appealing and dangerous for your kids, says Dr. Roes.

“Kids might try and take that OxyContin or other pain medication they find easily in the medicine chest and experiment with it. We need to be aware and watchful of what medication we keep in the house.”

Dr. Marcus agrees. “Children will take pills from the medicine cabinet and experiment, but they won’t know what they’re taking. That’s dangerous.”

She recommends not only talking to your kids and being aware of what’s in the house, but locking up prescription medication. Overdosing, especially with prescription pain killers, can be fatal. Mixing prescription drugs with over-the-counter medication or alcohol can also be life-threatening.

The Partnership for a Drug Free America states that prescription drugs can be just as addictive as any other kind of drug, but kids don’t realize this because they don’t see medication as harmful. The long-term effects of prescription drug abuse is unknown because the trend is so new. “We’ve had years and years to study the affects of heroin and cocaine.

We haven’t had the time to do the same with these new kinds of drugs,” says Dr. Roes. However, Dr. Roes adds that many over-the-counter or prescription drugs will have similar short-term and long-term effects as their illegal counterparts.

There is a chance of liver, kidney and brain damage, memory loss and even death, even though little is known about the long-term effects. “Stimulants and depressants produce much of the same effects no matter what form they’re in,” he says. “For example, OxyContin can produce the same effects as heroin.”

READ MORE: Know the signs of hard drug use

Warning signs to be aware of

There are physical warning signs that accompany all types of drug use. “Look for changes in your child, such as fatigue, a cough that doesn’t go away or glazed eyes,” says Dr. Marcus. Although Dr. Roes warns that you shouldn’t be too suspicious of your child’s behavior, there are additional early warning signs to be aware of that may indicate your child is into drugs.

“With most drugs, kids become less communicative, receive lower grades, change friends, get into more fights or start having discipline problems. But remember,” he says, “these signs are also characteristics of just being a teenager. Try not to overreact or be too strict, because that can often backfire. Keep the channels of communication open because once they’re broken the chasm will only get bigger.”

Officer Michael Donaldson, a D.A.R.E. officer with the Town of Wallkill Police Department, also recommends keeping a close eye on any and all medication you store in your house. “Especially with younger teens, pharmaceuticals are often easier to access than other drugs like marijuana. Know the number of pills you should have in a bottle, and how many medications are stored in the cabinets.”

Some teens are even “trafficking” prescription meds – that is, selling extra pills they may have at school or around the neighborhood. Officer Donaldson adds that over-the-counter medicines that may be found in the home, such as cough syrup, are also appealing to kids because they are legal. “If they’re walking down the street with cough medicine, no one thinks anything of it. It’s a legal substance.”

Parents are often unaware that seemingly innocuous drugs like cough syrup can be used by kids to get high. Inhalants are popular among youngsters as well. “[Kids] can get high by inhaling aerosol and other household chemicals such as rubber cement, spray paint, paint thinner and correction fluid,” says Dr. Marcus. “This is another cheap drug that’s easy to access.”

Inhalant abuse, known as huffing, produces a euphoric effect. What kids don’t realize is that huffing can kill the very first time it is tried. If they don’t suffer cardiac arrest, with repeated huffing they can experience memory loss, impaired concentration, neurological damage, and permanent brain damage. Inhalant abuse can produce a chemical odor in the body and on clothes. Poor physical coordination, sweaty palms, tremors, extreme hyperactivity and excessive sweating may also be signs of drug abuse.

READ MORE: What if your teen gets the blues?

Communication is key in keeping kids from drugs

Even if you don’t suspect drug use it’s important to address the issue like any other problem or danger. “Treat it as you would any other issue. Whether it’s drug use, sex, strangers, or cigarettes, you need to be a resource for your children. Don’t elevate drugs over any other topic – that might only draw their attention more. Answer any questions they may have and make it clear to them that you love them and are there if they need to talk,” advises Dr. Roes.

When you do decide it’s time to talk about drugs, make sure you discuss the harmful effects of both illegal drugs and those that are “legal” (prescription or over-the counter medications). Make it clear to your children that taking medication that hasn’t been prescribed to them by a doctor, or taking over-the-counter medicines like cough syrup when they’re not sick is dangerous.

Considering children are being exposed to drugs by peers at earlier ages, it’s important to start the conversation early in life. “It’s never too early to start talking to your children – you should introduce the subject from day one. They should be getting information from you and communicating with you about drugs throughout their lives,” adds Dr. Marcus.

“Take your cue from your child. If they start to ask questions, sit down and talk with them, even if they are only 6 or 7. Don’t worry that they’ll get curious and start to experiment with drugs if you bring it up – that’s unlikely. The younger they are, the simpler the conversation usually is. When they move into their teenage years, they’ll probably have more questions,” explains Dr. Roes.

The Partnership for a Drug Free America reports that children who are educated about drugs are 50 percent less likely to use them.

Officer Donaldson says interacting with your children and speaking to them about drugs is important, but he suggests getting even more involved than that. “Have your child invite his friends over. That way you’ll be able to meet them and get to know them better. Let them hang out in the basement or family room so they can have fun and you can keep an eye on things at the same time.”

If you are having a hard time finding ways to approach the subject, Dr. Marcus recommends talking to your physician, a school counselor or clergy for advice and support. “Or you can look for information online, at libraries or through school programs. There are a tremendous amount of resources out there for parents,” she adds.

“Keep in mind that there’s always a period of curiosity for most teenagers. But if you feel things are getting out of hand, an assessment is important. You can bring your child to the Department of Mental Health or your family physician for a drug assessment. Show them that you are concerned because you care about their health,” explains Dr. Roes.

READ MORE: Ways to treat depression in teens

Some teens or older children may be reluctant or even refuse to get help. “You can start with a school guidance counselor and have them make a referral. But if a child really doesn’t want to, the parent should insist that they do. Early intervention is key,” advises Dr. Roes.

“If your child does overdose, has seizures or is found with little or no pulse, get them to an emergency room as soon as possible,” says Dr. Roes. From there, he explains, once the child is stable, a level of care will be determined. Doctors may recommend an outpatient service or short-term to long-term impatient programs.

“We always try the least restrictive option, based on their heath, first. We may start with a once-a-week visit to a therapist, and if that doesn’t work move to a day-long outpatient program. If that still isn’t enough, then we may consider a residential service,” explains Dr. Roes.

Drugs today are “equal opportunity” – it doesn’t matter what your socioeconomic background or race, your children can still abuse drugs. Dr. Marcus says “there are no boundaries” when it comes to abusing drugs, but different kids will use different drugs. “Most often children that come from poor economic backgrounds will experiment with cheaper drugs, such as inhalants and prescription medication that they can find in the house.”

“It can still happen no matter how good of a parent you are. Although statistically family dinners, church attendance and involvement in sports and other activities will help keep kids from drugs, there’s still a chance they’ll experiment or get addicted. Always, always make sure you’re there for them – that you’re their resource for help,” says Dr. Roes.

“The best advice I can give you is to be a good model for your children. You’re behavior is mimicked by your kids,” says Dr. Marcus.