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Prescription & Over the counter Medications

There is a misconception among some young people that medications are safe to use without a prescription

One in two Canadian homes have prescription medications that are potentially dangerous, and most do not store them in a secure place.

Kids may have easy access to prescription or over-the-counter medications in their own homes that could pose a serious risk to their health.

  • The opioid crisis continues to have a huge impact across the country. Since the pandemic, 6,946 apparent opioid toxicity deaths occurred (April 2020 to March 2021), an 88% increase from the same period prior to the pandemic (April 2019 to March 2020 – 3,691 deaths). 1
  • Young people have consistently accounted for approximately 20% of preventable deaths due to opioids. 2
  • Hospitalization rates due to opioid poisoning have increased across all age groups – but mostly among youth aged 15 to 24 years of age. 3
  • 13% of high school students in Ontario admitted to having used prescription painkillers like Percocet, Tylenol 3, Demerol, Dilaudid, codeine, etc.) without a prescription 4 and 49% say they got them from home

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications can also be used to get high

In many parts of the country, teens can easily buy OTC cough and cold remedies at any drugstore, supermarket, or convenience store where these products are sold. They can also get them from home, or order them online, where they also can find information and videos on what drugs to try and mix together.

Medications that contain the active ingredient dextromethorphan (DXM) can produce a “high” feeling and can be extremely dangerous in excessive amounts. In 2018-19, the prevalence of past-12-month dextromethorphan use to get high among students in grades 7 to 12 increased to 6% (approximately 126,000) from 5% in 2016-17.5

Laxatives, diuretics, and diet pills are also used without a medical reason in order to achieve an idealized weight.  Young people may start taking just a few diet pills which can develop into dependence. Herbal weight loss products can be just as dangerous as diet pills. All of these substances act as stimulants to the central nervous system and much like speed can have serious side effects.

Before you or anyone in your family takes any OTC medication, carefully read the label, and/or consult with your family physician or local pharmacist.

Be mindful of your meds

Do you or someone in your family need to take a medical prescription? Here are some easy ways to keep your medications safe:

  • Learn more about common prescription and over-the-counter medications and their effects. Becoming familiar with the types of medications that are most frequently prescribed will help you identify the ones that pose a potential risk of being used improperly.
  • Secure all prescription and over the counter medications in their homes.
  • Model positive coping strategies in times of anxiety or stress.
  • Talk openly with their kids about the health risks of taking any form of medication without a prescription that is intended for them and prescribed by a health care provider.
  • Always safely dispose of all leftover or expired medications – it’s a simple way to protect your family and the environment.

Talk with your kids about the importance of using medications only as prescribed

Ready to begin that conversation? Here are a few tips that might help you:

Use open-ended questions – They can help start a dialogue and avoid a lecture. For example; “What do you think motivates kids to take prescription pills recreationally?”

Use Active Listening – Be curious as to what your teen or young adult has to say about substance use. “What have you heard about using cough syrup to get high?” Reflect back on what you hear – Let your child know you heard what was said. For example: “It seems like you’re concerned that some kids you know are taking pain pills.” Reflections do not mean that you necessarily agree, but that you understand what your child is trying to convey.

Choose a good time and place – Look for opportunities to talk when both you and your child are most receptive. Occasions when you are doing something together, like taking a walk, going for a drive, or working on chores are often good times for conversations.

Give them the information – Explain how taking anyone else’s medications can be dangerous. Ask your child if they are aware of the consequences of experimenting with opioids, and explain the risks to them. Talk about the effects drug use can have on their mental and physical health.

Talk about their future plans – Encourage your child to think about what they want for their future, and help them understand the benefits of making healthy choices.

Offer empathy and support – Let your child know you understand the teen years can be tough. Acknowledge that everyone struggles sometimes, and it may be tempting to use substances as a way to cope with problems. Talk about the importance of finding healthy coping strategies and offer to explore those alternatives together.

Above all, always come from a place of love – Remind your children that you are always there to guide and support them and that it’s important to you that they are healthy, happy, and making safe choices for themselves.

Let’s drop the stigma

Check your tone when you talk about substance use – do you sound judgmental?

Using condescending or disparaging language can be counterproductive, and can have an extremely negative and demoralizing impact on:

  • people with mental health issues,
  • people with chronic diseases or disabilites who need to take medications,
  • people who problematically use opioids or other substances,
  • people with substance use disorders,
  • people who are in treatment or recovery, as well as their families.

This negative stigma often leads people to feel shame, isolation and use drugs on their own, which can, in turn, lead to accidentally overdosing and dying alone.

ANYONE who uses drugs can be at risk of an accidental overdose, including those who:

  • Are already struggling with problematic substance use
  • Use drugs occasionally in a recreational context
  • Are trying a street drug for the first time
  • Are not strictly following their health care professional’s instructions

Opening the conversation with your family about stigma and its negative effects on people will engage all of us, adults and youth, to think about how we treat others who may be suffering and encourage people to get the help they need.

DFKC’s annual National Drug Drop-off Campaigns

Our annual National Drug Drop-off campaigns focus on the importance of using prescription and OTC medications only for their intended purpose, safe storage of all medicine and the return of expired and unused medications to the pharmacy for proper disposal.

Entitled “Families shouldn’t share everything” the campaign in August 2021 was conceived to remind parents that prescription and over-the-counter medications should only be taken by the person they are prescribed to, and to engage in conversations with their kids about medication safety.   

Families shouldn't share everything. Talk with your kids about prescriptions.
Listen to the Radio spot

1. Health-infobase Canada

2. Health Canada Canadian Student Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs Survey 2018-19

3. Canadian Institute for Health Information


5. The Chief Public Health Officer’s Report on the State of Public Health in Canada 2019

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