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Hard Candy: New Ways Kids Get High

Narcotic Pain Relievers

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.