Unauthorized use of pharmaceutical and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs by teenagers is a growing national problem. This latest trend in drug abuse by adolescents is called pharming, or the nonmedical use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Pharm parties, also referred to as “skittles parties” is a simple concept, teenagers take a handful of medications that are lying around in their parent’s medicine cabinet and mix it in a community bowl to share with peers at a party. These parties can happen anywhere, in a basement, in a backyard, in a cornfield, in a hotel, in an abandoned building or in your living when you are not home. From cough medicines and sleep aids to opioid painkillers, ADHD medications and anti-anxiety pills; teens are hoping to get a temporary high off whichever pill they randomly choose from the community bowl. Many teenagers views prescription pills and over-the-counter medications as safe because they are prescribed by a doctor or easily obtained without a prescription. Opioids such as Vicodin, Percocet, and MS Contin are common prescription painkillers that are the leading substances of abuse among teenagers and adults in the United States. The “opioid epidemic” which is responsible for taking thousands of lives each year (42,000 in 2016) began in the 1990s with prescription pills, then reached a “second wave” in the early 2000s with heroin, and a “third wave” in the past few years with the introduction of illicitly manufactured fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Prescription pills and over-the-counter pills can be extremely unsafe and even deadly, when taken incorrectly. A 2013 study reported in U.S. News & World Report found that at least 1 in 4 teens has misused or abused prescription drugs at least once in their lifetime.

The deadly side effects of prescription and OTC medications

Skittling or pharming is a party game in which teenagers indiscriminately mix drugs together, putting themselves at risk for stroke, heart attack, or irreversible brain damage. Emergency room physicians struggle with discerning the combination of medications that an individual has ingested at a pharm party, resulting in delay and uncertainty of treatment. Many teenagers may be too afraid to seek medical attention, which can potentially lead to chronic neurological deficits or even death. Prescription pills are on the rise and with unlocked medicine cabinets, easy communication due to advanced technology and peer pressure; teenagers and adolescents are becoming more experimental when it comes time to altering their minds. Studies have shown that the majority of individuals, who abuse prescription painkillers, obtain them from friends or relatives and ADHD drugs such as Ritalin and Concerta are widely sold among teenagers to increase athletic performance and study habits.  In other words, these dangerous medications can be easily accessed.

What can you do as a parent?

The 2008 Office of National Drug Control Policy reported the disturbing statistic that more than 1 in 4 parents (27%) believe that prescription and over-the-counter medications are much safer to abuse than street drugs. Prevention starts with education and awareness about prescription and over-the-counter medications. Parents need to understand that legal does not equal safe when it comes to over-the-counter and prescription medications. Providers’ instructions should encourage families to routinely assess the content of their medicine cabinets and “if you don’t need it, get rid of it.”

Gathering unused or expired medications oftentimes goes unnoticed by family members and many parents store their medications in unlocked cabinets allowing easy access to these substances.

  • As a parent, you can help prevent this by storing and locking all your prescription and over-the-counter medications in an undisclosed location.
  • Parents can also educate their teenager about the harmful side effects of these medications when taken for the incorrect reasons.
  • Talk to your pediatrician or family physician about the side effects of prescription and OTC medications
  • Be honest with your teenagers about drug abuse and establish an open line of communication
  • Do you research, many parents have never heard the term, “pharm parties” but it is important to stay updated on these current trends so you remain vigilant about the potential dangers that could be lurking in your backyard.
  • Make sure to monitor computer and online activity use.
  • Parents are encouraged to form “WE CARE” groups which can host parties, after school activities, school dances etc. and develop parent pledges which support drug free events
  • Be aware of your child’s mental health and look out for signs of depression and aggression as red flags that something is wrong.