A new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that 83.4 percent of teens had unsupervised access to their prescription medications at home including 73.7 percent taking pain relief, anti-anxiety, stimulant and sedative medications that have the potential for abuse.
"It was surprising to me that parents were not storing medications securely because I expected them to be locked up and for parents to administer the medications," said Paula Ross-Derow, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan's Institute for Research on Women and Gender.
She and her colleagues explored the supervision of prescribed medications among 230 adolescents in 8th and 9th grade, using an online survey and in-person interview.
Emergency room visits for non-medical use of prescription narcotic pain relievers are increasing in people under age 21, and death by poisoning due to prescription overdoses is up 91 percent in less than a decade among adolescents ages 15 to 19, note the researchers.
They acknowledge that it is possible that parents and guardians may not believe that their children would engage in non-medical use or give away their prescription medications and therefore do not take steps to secure them.
"Dr. Ross-Durow's paper shows that the majority of adolescents who are prescribed controlled medications have easy, unsupervised access to them," said Silvia Martins, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University. "This is of great concern, since it not only can lead to the possibility of overdose of medications with potential abuse liability, but also can contribute to diversion of these medications and nonmedical use by their peers."
"Parents don't recognize that other kids come into their homes and can open a cabinet or see meds on the kitchen counter and take them," Ross-Durow explained. "Teenagers may give them away—thinking they're helping a friend—and they don't see this as a risky behavior, or some may sell the medications. Visitors in the home may simply steal them."
The researchers admit they don't know whether providers are adequately educating parents and encourage more studies around this topic. "Plus, what we did not ask, but realized when examining our findings, is about other medications prescribed to parents and how those are stored. What we want to know is when medications are readily available in the home; does that lead to nonmedical use? We believe unsupervised access lays the groundwork for that," said Ross-Durow.
Journal of Adolescent Health