Teen-proofing the medicine cabinet

When I was a new parent, I often received unsolicited catalogs selling "essential" baby-proofing items — everything from plastic outlet covers to stair gates to those tricky cabinet locks that only toddler fingers can open. Now that my kids are 8, 10, and almost 13, I figured I was past the proofing stage. Until I talked to Mary Nelson.

Nelson, a coordinator of nonprofit drug and alcohol abuse prevention efforts in Rice County, says abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs by preteens and teens is increasing at a time when the abuse of other drugs is declining.

Why? Easy access is a huge reason. Cold and flu medicines, OxyContin and other pain medicines, and drugs like Ritalin that are used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are among the most abused and often can be found in the family medicine cabinet, along with sleep medicines, antidepressants, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and even veterinary drugs. "We’re like mini–pharmacies in our homes, and all of that is left pretty much in the open," says Nelson.

Young people often think that because these drugs are prescribed or recommended by doctors they are safer than street drugs. But when taken by a person they’re not prescribed for, or when they’re mixed with alcohol or other drugs, they can be dangerous and even lethal.

A 2008 study of teens in grades 7–12, released in February by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, reveals some disturbing statistics: One in five teens reports abusing a prescription medication at least once in their lives; one in 10 reports having abused a prescription pain reliever in the past year; and 7 percent have reported abusing over-the-counter cough medicine in the past year.

Nelson says parents should set clear rules and model appropriate behavior themselves, like taking medicines only as directed. To reduce the temptation for teens and their friends, parents should control access to needed medicines and remove unused ones from the house. It’s also important to raise awareness among other adults in a teen’s life, like grandparents or the neighbors where a teen babysits, Nelson says. A grandmother who recently had surgery might hesitate to throw out unused, expensive pain pills until she’s told about the dangers of misuse.

Disposing of medicines isn’t as easy as it seems. Authorities used to recommend flushing medicines down the toilet or the drain, but because of groundwater contamination concerns that’s no longer advised. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recommends discarding unwanted medications in the trash after modifying them to discourage consumption (for example, adding a small amount of water to pills to partially dissolve them), sealing the original containers with tape, and then concealing them inside larger opaque containers. This procedure isn’t ideal, though, because it requires people to follow multiple steps, and the medicines end up in the landfill.

That’s why Nelson’s working to develop a program in Northfield like the drug take-back program run jointly by the Chisago County Sheriff’s office and Environmental Services office. It’s among a handful in the country that continuously collects and disposes of unwanted prescription drugs in an environmentally responsible way. People place prescription medicines into a secure drop box installed in the lobby of the sheriff’s office, and the drugs are routinely collected and sorted before being shipped to an incinerator. In the past year, the office has shipped more than 400 pounds of drugs, and plans to ship another 200 pounds this month.

Although limiting access is important, that alone won’t solve the problem. As experts stress, and as statistics show, honest parent-child discussions about drug abuse are essential. We can’t teen-proof the world, but we can help our children develop skills they’ll need to safely navigate the challenges of adolescence.

Joy Riggs is a Northfield writer who still hasn’t figured out those childproof cabinet locks.


Minnesota Pharmacists Association

Partnership for a Drug-Free America

Karl Schreck
Chisago County Sheriff’s office and Environmental Services office

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency