More Rural Teens Look to 'Mother's Little Helpers'

Urban adolescents less likely to misuse prescription opioids

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Small student-teacher ratios. Fresh air. Land spreading out far and wide. … Rural communities earn their reputations, in part, by offering these amenities.

Some families move to these areas in hopes of less crime and less accessibility to illicit drugs. But a recent study from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine suggests parents of teens in rural communities would be wise to take stock of their medicine cabinets.

Some 13 percent of rural teens have reported using prescription drugs for non-medical purposes as opposed to 10 percent of urban teens. Many of these drugs include painkillers (such as Vicodin and OxyContin) and tranquilizers prescribed to curb anxiety (Xanax, Valium, Ativan, etc.).  

Researchers from the study speculate that less accessibility to illicit street drugs such as heroin and cocaine may prompt teens in rural areas to raid the medicine cabinet for a quick high.

"Data support that one reason for the higher prevalence of non-medical prescription drug use in rural areas may be the lack of availability of drugs … that are easily accessed in urban areas," the authors write.

The study – which includes input from nearly 18,000 teens – concludes that rural adolescents are 26 percent more likely to abuse prescription drugs than urban teens. 

So what can parents do to address this issue? Keeping an eye on children’s overall physical and emotional health status is a good place to start. Teens who reported poorer health and episodes of depression were more likely to misuse prescription drugs. Kids who remained enrolled in school also abused these drugs less frequently.

Familial intervention also seems to play a pivotal role.  

"Residing in a household with two parents was associated with a 32 percent reduction in the odds of non-medical prescription drug use," according to the authors.

Some might consider prescription drugs a safer alternative to street drugs, but illegal, non-medical use of these substances can cause just as much harm. For example, taking a large single dose of OxyContin, the brand name for narcotic pain-reliever oxycodone hydrochloride, can delay breathing, causing respiratory depression that can lead to death in severe instances.    

Aside from dangerous physical side effects – including drowsiness, dizziness, blurred vision, hallucinations and fainting – non-medical use of prescription opioids can also lead to increased impulsive behaviors and addiction problems. Teens who use prescription drugs earlier in life have a greater chance of later developing prescription-drug dependence.

Other studies suggest teens aren’t always looking to get “high” when misusing prescription drugs. Adderall, generally prescribed for attention-deficit disorders, staves off fatigue and sleepiness, allowing sleep-deprived and competitive adolescents a chance to stay awake for all-night study sessions and improve athletic performance. (For anyone who has grown up in a rural community, especially in the South, the import given to Friday night football can’t be underestimated.)

Except for marijuana, prescription drugs are misused more by youths than any illegal drugs, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).  

It’s time for parents to take a stand against this kind of misuse. For small-town and farming community residents, that means locking up the Valium and Adderall and hiding those backache pills the doctor prescribed.      

Review Date: 
November 2, 2010