A recent study shows how common it is for teenagers to share their prescription medication with others or borrow medication for undiagnosed problems. Parents are a first line of defense in this growing public health problem.

Adolescents who share pain or ADHD medication may be abusing the drug and risking dependence.

When adolescents share their prescription medication with their friends, there are consequences for both the giver and the receiver. The teen that is giving away her medications no longer has enough for a complete course for herself and may suffer a more prolonged condition or a rapid recurrence of symptoms. The teen who "borrows" his friend's meds may be incorrectly self−diagnosing and treating his condition. He may delay or avoid evaluation and advice from a physician. He may be taking the wrong dose, or may experience side effects or interactions with other medications that his doctor would have warned him about. His friend may not give him all the correct information about safely and effectively using the medication. A pregnant adolescent girl may put her fetus at risk by using a medication that has the potential to cause birth defects. Sharing friends' antibiotics inappropriately may add to the burden of antibiotic resistance that is currently plaguing the medical community. Adolescents who share pain or ADHD medication may be abusing the drug and risking dependence.

A recent study in the August online issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health asked 594 teens whether they had borrowed or loaned prescription medication. The researchers asked about the kinds of medication teens shared, what kind of information was given to them about the medication, whether they had borrowed to avoid a doctor visit, whether they had ultimately needed to see the doctor, whether they had disclosed their borrowing or sharing to the doctor, and whether they experienced side effects or unexpected reactions to the medication.

About 20 % of the teens reported sharing prescription medication. They shared antibiotics, birth control and medications for allergies, acne, ADHD, pain and mood. Only half of the borrowers were given written or verbal instructions or warnings about the drug. Three−quarters of the borrowers had done so to avoid going for health care and one–third of this group ultimately had to see a doctor for their unresolved problem. But when they did go to the doctor, 40% of the teens did not mention that they had borrowed prescription drugs. Slightly over one−third of the borrowers experienced a side−effect form the medicine.

The study shows that medication sharing is prevalent among adolescents and, because of the side effects so many suffered; it constitutes a significant public health concern. The researchers recommended that physicians specifically question teens about medication sharing and provide counseling against such behavior. They suggest public awareness campaigns and the inclusion of information about risks of sharing drugs on medication packaging. The study was published in the August online edition of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Parents can help in the effort. They can start the educational process early, telling their young children that the medication they are taking is special for them and shouldn't be given to anyone else, even their friends. When the child is going to the doctor, the parent can talk with them about why medical visits are important when you feel sick and tell them how doctors have special training to help people with health problems. When their teenagers are given medication by the physician, parents can talk with them about the risks of sharing, highlighting the importance of taking a full course of prescribed medication to get better. If parents suspect medication sharing, they can monitor the amount of medication left, and the frequency of needing refills. Parents may need to take charge of dispensing and storing the medication for younger or less responsible teens. They should also talk with the teen's provider about their concerns and request that the physician address this issue.