Video: Easy access

By Jane Weaver Health editor
updated 10/12/2006 6:47:08 PM ET 2006-10-12T22:47:08

The risky combination of teenagers, prescription drugs and the Internet are causing big worries for parents, according to a report on NBC Nightly News.

The report by chief medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman examines teenagers going online to buy powerful painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin.

"Without a prescription and no parental OK — but with a credit card handy — kids are accessing online pharmacies," Snyderman says.

One in five teenagers , about 4.5 million has taken a prescription painkiller like Oxycontin or Vicodin to get high, according to a recent Partnership for a Drug-Free America study.

"We think about our kids smoking dope and taking heroin, but, increasingly they’re coming into emergency rooms with a bizarre combination of drugs, with narcotic painkillers now eclipsing cocaine and heroin [overdoses]," Synderman says.

In the 'Nightly' report, Dr. Laurence Westreich of New York University School of Medicine explains that many teens and parents alike don't realize that prescription drugs can be as addictive and dangerous as illegal ones. spoke with Westreich, a psychiatrist also with a private practice, about how parents can protect their teens from prescription drug abuse.

Q. What are the most abused prescription drugs?
The ones most commonly abused are Oxycontin, Vicodin, Ritalin and Xanax.

Q. Are they more dangerous than illegal drugs like marijuana, cocaine or heroin?
Kids think they’re safer because they’re prescription. The thing to understand about Oxycontin or Vicodin is that they are in the exact same class as heroin. They’re very potent opioids.

But it’s not only that the drugs themselves are dangerous, but you have no idea what you’re getting if you order it over the Internet. If it comes in a nice bottle that says Oxycontin on it, kids assume that it’s safe. You could get a counterfeit. If you order it from a pharmacy in Panama, you could be getting the drug or you could be getting sugar or cyanide.

Q. How should parents talk to their children about prescription drugs?
You need to look at all substance use in the same way. The most dangerous substance in our country is tobacco, it kills more Americans than cocaine, alcohol and heroin put together. When you’re talking about tobacco and alcohol, definitely talk about prescription drugs that they get from their friend’s mom’s medicine cabinet. Talk about marijuana. They are all substances that can hurt you — whether they’re legal or you get them on the Internet or not is irrelevant.

Q. Is it more difficult to detect when a teen is abusing prescription medications?
What’s hard is there’s no evidence kids are getting it from school or there’s no drug dealer around. Just these legitimate looking packages from Amazon and then he gets a package from someone else and parents have no idea. It’s not like there’s some nefarious drug dealer around the corner. Fed Ex brings the package.

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Q. How addictive are the prescription drugs?
Opioids like Oxycontin and Vicodin are extremely addictive. That’s what kids don’t understand. They smoke pot at a party or use some Ecstasy, but if you use Vicodin for a couple of days, if you stop, you’re going to feel bad. People get diarrhea, sweats and muscle cramps. You can easily cure that by taking more Vicodin, which is why it’s so seductive.

One of these Web site tries to show how legitimate they were, their point was they wouldn’t rip you off because they have all these loyal customers that keep coming to them. Well, they’re not loyal customers; they’re addicts. It was egregious.

Q. Should parents be checking teens Web browsers for page view histories or instant messaging buddy lists?
It’s probably a good idea to do that in general, to look for predators or kids going to grotesque porn sites. But I don’t think you can do it on a consistent basis. Kids are way too sophisticated to be caught on that very often.

It’s a good idea to have a computer in an open, public area and know the lists of sites they’ve been to. But it’s a practical matter because a kid can go to a friend’s house or use the computer at the library.

Q. Is the Internet how the majority of teens are getting prescription drugs?
The data are pretty clear that most are getting it from medicine cabinets or other kids who may have obtained them legitimately. But it’s a rapidly increasing percentage. In my practice, many more kids and adults are talking about the ease of getting drugs on the Internet.

If people use drugs and alcohol, there’s an increase of use as you decrease the search time. With a few clicks of a mouse, the kids can get drugs. Its not like you have to go through any big hassle. It’s like ordering a pizza.

Q. What should they do if they found out their child has purchased painkillers over the Internet?
The first thing to do is talk to the kid immediately about it. Be very concerned about any changes in behavior. Of course, teenagers have mood swings and that’s normal. But does he looked fatigue or like he is losing weight? If you see that stuff, get the kid to treatment right away.

A lot of kids try Vicodin and Oxycontin and Ritalin, but most who try that stuff don’t go on to be addicts. It’s just the probability is higher than if they never try it all. Don’t lose hope because kids are trying it.

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