The dangers of drug sharing

How accessible are the medications in your house?

A new survey shows that as many as one in seven Massachusetts parents have given their kids prescription painkillers that weren’t prescribed to them. Considering how dangerous a practice this is, those numbers are pretty shocking. Remember waiting in line for coffee this morning? If this survey is accurate then at least one of the people in front of you may have risked their child’s life to alleviate discomfort.

“There’s no question that in some cases this type of behavior could be fatal,” says Lois Lee, MD, MPH, an emergency medicine physician at Children’s Hospital Boston. “Any time you give adult strength medication to a child you increase the chance of an unintentional overdose.”

Taking prescription medication without a doctor’s approval is dangerous for anyone, but the risks are far greater for children. The dosage of most painkillers are based on the size of the patient, so what’s considered a mild painkiller for a full grown adult can have a much more pronounced effect on a child.

Lois Lee, MD, MPH
Lois Lee, MD, MPH

And even if your child is spared negative side effects from taking medication not meant for him, parents who share prescription drugs are sending mixed messages about drug safety. Over 20,000 Americans die every year from drug overdoses, more than another accidental cause of death including car accidents, and prescription medications contribute heavily to that number. By endorsing medication misuse in the home, some parents may be unknowingly sending their kids down a very dangerous path.

“When you give kids prescription medication that’s not meant for them you’re suggesting that it’s OK,” Lee says. “That attitude could easily lead to the child experimenting on their own, possibly with much larger and more dangerous drugs or larger dosages.”

Given the high cost of childcare, many modern families rely on baby sitters, grandparents or older siblings to help watch younger family members. If this is a common occurrence in your house, it may be a good idea to leave clear instructions about what medications in the house are OK for kids and what’s off limits, just like you would set boundaries around junk food or TV time. By being explicit in your instructions you can lessen the chance of a well-meaning caretaker giving your child medication that could hurt them.

“It’s not just your medication you need to be aware of, its grandma’s, grandpa’s and anyone else who may help look after your child,” Lee says. “Any time your child is in a situation where he or she could be around medication, or have it given to them by a trusted adult, it’s a good idea to be very upfront about what is safe and not safe for your child.”

Of course increased awareness about prescription drug abuse is important information for the public, but Lee says some people’s understanding about its dangers is skewed. In a recent study examining children’s reaction to pain, Lee and her colleagues found several instances where parents withheld pain medication from their children, even when it was prescribed by a doctor.

“Based on what I’ve seen, you could say that the pendulum swings both ways,” she says.  “Clearly there are parents who are giving medicine to their children when it’s not appropriate, but there are other cases where people are so scared of prescription drugs they kept them from their kids even though they were recommended by a doctor. It’s hard to say why parents do either, but my advice is to listen to the doctor and know that he or she has your child’s best interests in mind.”

Over half of the parents polled in the survey also said their children have easy access to prescription drugs in their house. For ‘tweens and teenagers who may be tempted to experiment with these drugs, Lee suggests hiding or locking them away. She also recommends talking openly with kids about why you go to such lengths to keep them safe. By taking the time to explain how dangerous prescription drugs can be—and letting your children know that you are aware of what meds are in your house and how full each bottle is—she says parents can take a proactive approach to keeping kids safe.