For some parents, the greatest drug-related threat to their teen isn’t lurking in the hallways of their child’s school or on some distant urban street corner. It’s on clear display in the bathroom medicine cabinet.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health, about 1.9 million people in the U.S. abuse prescription pain relievers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more people die annually from prescription painkiller overdoses than from heroin and cocaine combined. It is reported that behind marijuana, prescription painkillers are the second most popular abused substance in the U.S.

The problem is so extreme that some cities are taking steps to combat prescription painkiller abuse on a local level. In January 2013, a report from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Task Force on Prescription Painkiller Abuse found that the number of painkiller-related emergency room visits in New York City increased by 143 percent between 2004 and 2010 and that prescription painkillers were the cause of 32 percent of unintentional drug overdose deaths in 2010. Further, in 2011, 7 percent of New York City public school students in grades nine through 12 reported non-medical use of a prescription opioid during the past year.

These startling findings resulted in the mayor creating new policies and procedures for all city emergency rooms to try to address the problem. The guidelines of the mayor’s initiative, called “NYC RxStat,” state that emergency departments will not prescribe long-acting opioid painkillers, can only prescribe up to a three-day supply of opioids and will not refill lost, stolen or destroyed prescriptions.

Prescription painkiller abuse is not just a problem in metropolitans such as New York City, however. In fact, one of the main problems with prescription painkillers is their perception of being more “socially acceptable” than other hard drugs. Prescription painkillers do not share the stigma of street drugs, which are often considered dirty and used only by low-income people or criminals.

This perception, combined with the fact that they are legally produced, prescribed by doctors and purchased from pharmacies, leads many teens to believe that using prescription painkillers non-medically is perfectly fine. In the U.S., nearly one in 12 high school seniors reported non-medical use of Vicodin, and one in 20 reported abuse of OxyContin. Most often, these pills are obtained from friends or relatives.

Prescription painkillers affect the brain like heroin, binding to the receptors in the brain related to pain and reward. They are highly addictive and extremely dangerous. Abuse of prescription painkillers can cause unintentional death, often due to problems with respiration.

There are a variety of commonly abused prescription painkillers. Parents should be aware of slang names for the most frequently misused prescriptions, as well as the appearance of the pills themselves. Common threats include:

  • Codeine (Captain Cody, Cody)
  • Morphine (M, Miss Emma)
  • OxyContin (Oxy, OC, Oxycotton)
  • Percocet (Percs)
  • Vicodin (Vikes, Watson-387)
  • Lortab
  • Lorcet

In addition, parents should be on the lookout for signs of prescription painkiller abuse in their teen. The following behaviors should raise a red flag:

  • Loss of interest in appearance, sports or social activities
  • Cash, valuables or medication missing from the home
  • Sudden mood changes
  • Changes in friends
  • Deceitful and secretive behavior
  • Irregular schedule
  • Sleeping excessively or at atypical times
  • Noticeable increase in snoring

For more information about prescription painkiller abuse, contact the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information at 1-800-729-6686, or Compass Rose Academy can also help families struggling with painkiller misuse – please visit us at  today to learn more.


Mayor’s Task Force on Prescription Painkiller Abuse, Interim Report, January 2013, found at: