How to Know if Your Teenager Is Abusing ADHD Prescription Drugs

Poison centers offer good free information on when to seek medical help.

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If your 13-year-old seems superhyper today, it may not just be the ginormous Frappuccino he had for lunch. More and more kids are abusing ADHD stimulant drugs, which are easy to get from friends at school—or from a friend's medicine cabinet. I don't yet have children old enough to make this a worry (though my 13-year-old nephew is all about those Grande Frappuccinos). So I asked Jennifer Setlik, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital who has researched the increase in ADHD stimulant drug abuse, what parents should do to minimize the risk.

"Parent should be aware of exactly what medications their children are prescribed," Setlik says. "They should know the risks and benefits of the medication, when the child is taking it, and how long the prescription should last." That's a good start.

All prescriptions should be kept in a safe location, she says, and the bathroom medicine cabinet is almost always not it. That's not only because it's easily accessed by people visiting the house but also because a hot, wet environment makes medications lose effectiveness more quickly. A cool, dark place is better. Setlik is also worried about younger children getting into medications. "Parents need to keep a very close eye on medications," she says. "A locked cabinet would not be out of line."

Teenage abuse of ADHD medications has risen 76 percent in eight years, according to a new study by Setlik and colleagues published today in Pediatrics. How can you tell if your child or your child's friend may have taken more than the prescribed dose of stimulant medication? It can be tough, particularly at a time when caffeine-containing drinks seem to have replaced milk as the middle school beverages of choice. The three key symptoms of stimulant abuse are hyperactivity, agitation, and increased pulse or blood pressure. The bottom line: If the child reports those symptoms, or if his behavior is different from usual or is interfering with his usual activities, then it's time to call the pediatrician or a poison center. I learned that parents can call a poison center anytime just to get information: The nationwide toll-free number is (800) 222-1222. The experts there can also help a parent decide if a child needs medical attention.

The drugs most commonly abused by teenagers are still alcohol and marijuana, followed by opioid drugs like OxyContin. But unfortunately, trends in drug abuse are yet another trend that parents need to keep up on. And it sounds as if it's time to keep a closer eye on the Ritalin bottle—and any other prescriptions at home.