How to recognize a prescription drug addict

How can parents recognize if their child abuses prescription drugs? A description of the signs that parents can look for in their children…and a section for your questions at the end.

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Rx drug abuse affects us all

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 12 million people used prescription pain-killers for non-medical reasons in the past year. The Partnership for a Drug Free America found that nearly one in five teens say they have used prescription medicine at least once in their lifetime to get high.

How can parents recognize if their child abuses prescription drugs? It is not often obvious, but there are some signs that parents can look for in their children.

Signs of drug abuse: BEHAVIORS

What behavioral signs should parents look for that may indicate their child is addicted? First, behavioral changes like a gradual or sudden lack of interest in social activities can be a red flag for parents. If your child starts hanging out with people of questionable behavior or morals, especially if they are outside their normal social circle of friends or if they are reluctant to introduce you to their new friends, this is cause for concern. Another behavioral pattern to be aware of is if your child becomes isolated, secretive and avoids spending time with family.

Behavioral signs that may indicate your child is an addict include:

  • Breaking curfew without a good excuse
  • Changes in relationships with family
  • Declining grades/unexplained absences
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Exaggerated efforts not to allow family members into their rooms
  • Frequently forgetting homework
  • Lack of conversation and avoiding eye contact
  • Lethargy and lack of motivation
  • Loss of interest in sports and other extracurricular activities
  • Mood swings or irritability
  • Not letting you know where they go with friends, or whom they go with

Signs of drug abuse: PHYSICAL CHANGES

Physical changes your child may exhibit that could signal addiction:

  • Bloodshot eyes/pupils that are smaller or larger than usual
  • Changes in appetite, including increased AND decreased appetite
  • Chronic nosebleeds
  • Irregular sleep patterns
  • Lack of coordination and slurred speech
  • Open sores or scabs at various places on extremities
  • Sudden change in appearance with disregard for personal hygiene
  • Unusual smells on breath, body or clothing

Signs of drug abuse: PARAPHENILIA

What else can parents look for that may indicate the abuse of prescription drugs? Some abusers of prescription drugs may initially take the medicine orally and eventually graduate to crushing and snorting the pills or liquefying them for intravenous injection. Parents who notice:

  • spoons are missing
  • find hidden pipes
  • find syringes or needles
  • find aluminum foil with burnt marks

…have cause for concern.

If you find these items, confiscate them and confront your child. It is best to show concern about their possible addiction rather than anger or scolding them which will escalate their isolation. Intervention and seeking professional help are critical steps to take if your child is addicted.

Signs of drug abuse: OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

What other signs or behaviors may indicate my child is addicted? Basically, there are two major indicators that drug abuse has gotten out of hand.

1. Kids raid the medicine cabinet. Parents should monitor the use of their prescription medications and keep an inventory of any controlled substances they have on-hand. Remember all prescription medications are susceptible to abuse by teens including pain killers, stimulants, sedatives, and even cough suppressants. Addiction to prescription medications is an expensive habit.

2. Theft. Addicts may become desperate and resort to criminal activity or steal from family or friends to support their addiction. If material items like jewelry or other valuables begin disappearing, this may be due to theft by an addict who sells the items for cash to purchase drugs.

Have questions about your kids?

Please send us your questions about prescription drug use or abuse. That’s what the comments section is for! We’ll do our best to respond to you personally and promptly.


About the Author: If you like to learn more about how to prevent the diversion of pharmaceuticals or would like to receive training from retired DEA Special Agent and drug diversion expert Warren Rivera, please visit the website or
Reference Sources: Get Smart About Drugs
DRUGFREE.ORG: Is your Teen Using?
NCADD: What to look for: Signs and symptoms of addiction
About the author
Warren Rivera is a retired Assistant Special Agent in Charge from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Mr. Rivera is an experienced public speaker, trainer and an expert in the diversion of pharmaceutical controlled substances. Mr. Rivera currently owns Training Idea, LLC, a private consulting firm that provides training on DEA matters to the healthcare industry, law enforcement and the community.
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