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Emmy Hall was only 13 the first time she got high on "Vikes." She'd had a serious ear infection, and her doctor recommended Vicodin, a medicine commonly prescribed for severe pain. "I knew you could get high on it, but I'd never had temptation so close at hand," she says. Her mother, who had no reason not to trust Emmy, had stored the bottle in the medicine cabinet. "I popped two or three at first, then a couple more an hour later," Emmy recalls. "I got really loaded, but I figured doing 'Vikes' was harmless because they're legal." When a girlfriend urged her to try "Skittles" -- slang for over-the-counter cough and cold tablets -- Emmy was game. "The words kids use for drugs are cute and make you think of fun things like candy," she explains. "That makes you less tense about taking them. But once you start, you want to keep moving on to the next exciting thing."
For Emmy, "Skits" were the gateway to methamphetamines. The good girl who had attended a private religious school became a full-blown addict at 14 and repeatedly ran away from home, returning only when she needed money. Arrested for meth possession in 2004, she was placed in rehab, and after five hard months came back to Grants Pass, Oregon, where she's now a high school senior. "I'm blessed with family and friends who support me," says Emmy, 18. "But I still cry sometimes knowing that some of the girls I was in treatment with are back on the streets or dead -- and that I was one step away from the same fate."
Mary Jane, acid, crack, crank -- slang has always been part of the drug culture. But today's teens face an especially insidious threat: a growing array of prescription and over-the-counter medications with innocent nicknames that deceive kids into thinking they're a safe high. "The attitude among many teens is that stuff they can get from a medicine cabinet or at the grocery store isn't risky, isn't addictive, and doesn't have any downside," says Steve Pasierb, president of Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
As a result, kids who wouldn't go near illegal drugs don't hesitate to down a bottle of cough syrup or a blister-pack of cold and flu pills. Twice as many teens have abused prescription drugs as have tried cocaine or heroin, according to a Partnership survey. And they're paying a terrible price. Deaths from accidental overdoses of such medications, especially painkillers like Vicodin, have increased 113 percent among youth 15 and older in recent years, according to a 2007 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And kids are washing down all those pills with a potent new crop of fruit-flavored, caffeinated drinks with names like Sparks and Joose, some of which contain nearly 10 percent alcohol.
The abuse will continue until teens understand that all medications -- even those that are FDA-approved -- can be dangerous. "Education is critical, and it starts at home," says Gen. Arthur T. Dean, chairman and CEO of Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. But parents need to broaden the message they're sending to their kids. "Plenty of adults talk to their teens about drugs, but only a third of them mention prescription and OTC medicines in addition to substances like cocaine and heroin," says Pasierb. Read our report on some of the drugs teens are abusing (including the aliases they're known by), and get some practical advice from the experts on what you can do to keep your children safe from harm.
What's being abused:
Vicodin (hydrocodone), aka "Vikes," "Norco"
OxyContin (oxycodone), aka "Oxy," "O.C.," "Cotton"
How kids get high: Similar to morphine and heroin, these prescription drugs block pain signals in the brain and trigger the release of dopamine. OxyContin has a time-release formula that delivers between 10 and 80 mg of oxycodone over 12 hours, so teens usually crush the tablets and snort the powder to get a bigger dose, producing an intense euphoria. Hydrocodone, which is easier to obtain because it's more frequently prescribed, produces a milder high, so kids pop several pills at a time, often downing them with alcohol. A 2004 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found that some 10 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds abuse "Vikes" and "Cotton." And more are getting started early: OxyContin abuse among 8th-graders nearly doubled between 2002 and 2006.
The consequences: One in three teens mistakenly believe that prescription painkillers aren't addictive. But the brain quickly develops a tolerance to these narcotics -- creating a craving that grows stronger with each use. "Abusers need more to get high, and as the dose increases so do the risks," says NIDA Director Nora Volkow. Vicodin and OxyContin are central nervous system depressants, and overdoses can lead to seizures or coma; breathing is impaired and sometimes stops altogether.
What you can do: Store narcotic painkillers out of sight -- and under lock and key. Even having done that, keep an ongoing count of how many pills you have. Teens typically take only two or three at a time so you won't notice. Tell relatives to do the same. "If kids can't find these drugs at home, they'll look for them at Grandma's," says Pasierb. Teens often buy "Vikes" and "O.C." from friends or dealers, so stay alert for symptoms of abuse, which include lethargy and slow or shallow breathing.
What's being abused:
Coricidin HBP Cough & Cold and other over-the-counter pills, aka "Skittles," "Red Devils," "Triple-C"
Robitussin, Delsym and other syrups, aka "Tussin," "Orange Crush"
How kids get high: A dose of cough medicine contains 10 to 30 mg of dextromethorphan (DXM), an addictive drug that's chemically similar to codeine. Abusers ingest up to 15 times that amount, seeking a high that ranges from alcohol-like inebriation to visual hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. Some teens drink entire bottles of syrup, but "robo-tripping" or "robo-dosing," as the practice is known, often causes vomiting. As a result some kids prefer tablets, and the brand of choice is Coricidin Cough & Cold, which comes in little red pills stamped with three C's. "They have a sugary cinnamon coating that tastes good, and to have that as part of getting high is really cool," says Ashlyn M., a 16-year-old in New York City who started abusing "Vitamin D" (yet another name for DXM) five years ago and is still struggling with her addiction.
The consequences: Taking excessive amounts of cough syrup can cause blurred vision, slurred speech, rapid heartbeat, seizures, and coma. (Overdoses of cough medicines that also contain the analgesic acetaminophen can permanently damage the liver.) Health officials across the country estimate that several people have died in recent years as a result of accidents, psychotic behavior, and violence caused in part by DXM abuse. In response to the crisis seven states are considering legislation that would restrict sales of DXM medications to minors.
What you can do: Keep only one bottle of cough medicine at home and hide it from your kids. Be aware that DXM abusers can seem distant and detached, and overly absorbed with themselves or objects around them. Even if your child is behaving normally, check his backpack, room, and car for empty blister-packs or cough syrup bottles.
What's being abused:
Ritalin, Adderall, aka "Jif," "Skippy," "Vitamin R," "R-Ball"
How kids get high: Both drugs are stimulants (Adderall is, in fact, an amphetamine), and when taken in high doses their effects are similar to those of cocaine. Because Ritalin and Adderall are widely prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) -- some 5 million kids are on them -- teens can easily buy the drugs illegally from friends, dealers, or on the Internet for 50 cents to $1 a pill. Many abusers swallow the tablets or crush them and snort the powder. Some are looking to get high, while others take the drugs -- which are also powerful appetite suppressants -- to lose weight. And many rely on them as a study aid. "They increase focus and alertness so kids can hit the books longer with better retention," says Pasierb. "Some swear it's the difference between a B-plus and a C." Abuse rates almost double between the 8th and 12th grades, according to a NIDA-sponsored study.
The consequences: When misused, stimulant medications can be addictive. Taking high doses repeatedly over a short period of time can cause hallucinations, dangerously high body temperatures, rapid heartbeat, and potential cardiovascular failure. What's more, mixing Ritalin or Adderall with decongestant cold medicines may elevate blood pressure, while taking them with certain antidepressants can lead to seizures.
What you can do: Be alert to any unexplained changes in your child's behavior. A sudden turnaround in grades that can't be explained may be a red flag that your kid is abusing "Jif" or "Vitamin R." Other signs of abuse include dilated pupils, dry mouth, sudden weight loss, and rapid, extreme swings in mood and energy. If your child takes Ritalin or Adderall for ADHD, give her only a day's worth of pills at a time rather than handing over an entire month's prescription
What's being abused:
Hard lemonade, Smirnoff Ice, Bacardi Silver (and other flavored malt beverages), aka "Alcopop," "Cheerleader Beer"
Sparks, Joose, Tilt (and other fruity "energy" drinks with alcohol and caffeine)
How kids get high: They're as sweet as soda pop, but these beverages contain up to 9.9 percent alcohol -- nearly twice the amount in, say, a bottle of Coors or Budweiser. Though manufacturers say the drinks are aimed at adults, critics complain they're really targeted to teens. A third of 14- to 16-year-olds and half of 17- and 18-year-olds say they've tried "Alcopops," compared with less than a quarter of adults, according to a survey by the American Medical Association (AMA). And twice as many teens say they prefer them to beer or mixed drinks. "It tasted yummy, looked cute, and seemed, I don't know, younger than beer," Emmy Hall says of her first "Alcopop" in middle school. "Alcopops" are popular with girls, while boys tend to go for the so-called energy drinks, sometimes referred to as "speedball in a can." Available in supermarkets and convenience stores, both kinds of beverages come in colorful packaging that makes them hard to distinguish from nonalcoholic drinks, so cashiers often don't even realize they're selling alcohol to minors.
The consequences: "By mimicking drinks that kids like, these products make alcohol seem safe and familiar -- and with flavors like pomegranate, some even seem good for you," says Michele Simon, research and policy director at the Marin Institute, an alcohol watchdog group in San Rafael, California. They're anything but. Underage drinkers tend to binge and end up consuming far more alcohol than they realize. According to the AMA, a quarter of girls who have tried "Alcopops" have driven a car or been a passenger with another person who had also been drinking; 15 percent say they've engaged in sex soon after drinking a malt beverage. "Energy" drinks are especially dangerous because they combine the illusion of alertness with the impairment of alcohol.
What you can do: Teens may sneak these drinks into the house -- or even chug one in front of you -- figuring that you won't know what's in them. So whether the can is in your kid's hand or his room, read labels for alcohol content. When he has a night out with friends, wait up or ask him to wake you when he returns, then discreetly check for flushed cheeks, bloodshot eyes, or alcohol on his breath.
There's a wide range of drugs in your medicine cabinet that can attract teens looking for an easy high. Here, the most commonly abused (along with some of their slang names):
Originally published in the July 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.