How to Prevent Your Teen from Abusing Prescription Drugs & OTC Cough Medicine

By Trey Dyer Posted April 17, 2017 under Guest Authors

Substance abuse can have a profound impact on a teenager’s overall development. Since the teen brain is still growing, misusing substances can significantly alter how the brain functions once fully developed. With that said, the abuse of prescription drugs and over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicine by teens is particularly alarming.

While prescription drugs are the most widely abused substances among Americans 14 or older according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, OTC cough medicine is also misused by teens. In fact, roughly one out of 30 teens reports abusing cough medicine to get “high,” sometimes taking more than 25 times the recommended dose.

Why do teens abuse prescription drugs and OTC cough medicine? Teens may abuse these substances for the following reasons:

  • To get high. Teens abuse prescription drugs and OTC cough medicine to achieve an altered and euphoric state of mind. 
  • To stay alert. Teens may abuse stimulants, for example, to stay up late to study for tests, enhance mental or physical performance or to “party” for longer periods of time.
  • To self-medicate. Many teens struggle with mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Misusing medicine provides an avenue of escape from the painful emotions that can stem from mental health issues.

Why are teens flocking to prescription drugs and OTC cough medicine to get “high?”

Teens generally believe these substances are less dangerous, more affordable and easier to obtain than illegal drugs. For example, when seeking access to prescription drugs, teens have reported getting them from their friends who, in turn, sneak pills from family medicine cabinets. OTC cough medicine, however, can be even easier for teens to access directly given that most teens don’t have to sneak around to obtain it from their homes. Additionally, while certain states have prohibited the sale of OTC cough medicine to minors, teens can still purchase OTC cough medicine containing dextromethorphan (the active ingredient that helps to suppress coughs, but can be dangerous if taken in excess) in most states. 

It’s scary to think about, but parents can help prevent teenage substance abuse by taking the following steps:

  • Stay vigilant. Teens often try to take small amounts of medicine at a time to avoid detection. Keeping track of pills, tablets or amounts of liquid medicine can help parents notice when these substances go missing.
  • Lock your medicine cabinet. Teens cannot steal from the family medicine cabinet if they cannot access it, making this a simple and effective way to prevent medicine abuse.
  • Dispose of unwanted or unused medications. Leftover or expired medications are prime targets for teens looking to abuse them. Properly disposing of unwanted or expired medications eliminates the opportunity for a teen to take and abuse them.

Teens who abuse prescription drugs are generally looking for opioids, stimulants and depressants, while teens looking to abuse OTC cough medicine are looking for the active ingredient known as dextromethorphan (DXM). Becoming aware of the medicine in your home and what they contain can greatly increase the chances of preventing teen medicine abuse.

Trey Dyer is a writer for, a web resource seeking to equip people and their families with the best information, resources and tools to overcome addiction and lead a lifelong recovery. Trey is an advocate for substance use disorder treatment. When Trey is not working, he can be found surfing, hiking and fly fishing. You can connect with Trey on Twitter and follow on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.