Red Flags of Medication Abuse

Medication abuse occurs when a medication is taken in a higher dose than written by the doctor in order to get a euphoric effect.

Learn more about the signs of medication abuse, the differences between medication abuse and misuse and signs of addiction. 

What are the signs of medication abuse?

Most of the time, your child will not openly state that they are abusing their medication, even if they are directly asked about it. There are many signs that may point toward medication abuse, but many of these signs can be attributed to being a teenager/growing up.

Because of this, it is important to understand what may be a warning sign versus what is just normal behavior for your child. Broad categories of warning signs and examples of each are included below.

  • Locked doors
  • Secretive phone calls
  • Disappears for long time periods
  • Changes in relationships with friends and family
  • Use of over the counter medications to decrease eye redness/nasal irritation
  • Unable to focus
  • Mood changes or emotional instability
  • Less motivated
  • Sullen or depressed mood
  • Loss of interest in extracurricular activities or hobbies
  • Failure to fulfill responsibilities
  • Complaints from teachers or supervisors
  • Messy appearance
  • Smell of smoke on clothes or breath
  • Red flushed cheeks/face
  • Wearing long sleeves in warm weather (covering up track marks on arms)
  • Unusually tired
  • Nosebleeds
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Depression
  • Runny nose not due to allergies or a cold
  • Smell in car
  • Bongs on floor or in glove box
  • Disappearance of pills (prescription or over the counter)

This list is not all-inclusive. As previously stated, it is important to recognize what is unusual for your child.

  • is a great source of information about warning signs and drug information for parents.
  • Drug abuse or addiction could start from drug misuse (i.e. "One pill didn't help, so I'll take another"). This is why it is important to take the medication exactly how the doctor says to and to let him or her know if the medication helps your child's pain.

What is the difference between medication abuse and misuse?

Medication abuse is different from misuse.

  • Misuse occurs when a medication is not taken how it is intended to be, but not in order to get a pleasurable effect.
  • For example: Allowing a friend to take one of your prescription headache pills to help their headache.

What is the difference between medication abuse and addiction?

While abuse of drugs and addiction to drugs are often linked, they do not describe the same thing.

The difference between these two terms is set by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). DSM describes drug abuse as having one or more of the following problems in the last year:

  • Inability to manage responsibilities at work, school or home
  • Legal problems related to behavior while under the influence of a drug or due to drug abuse
  • Physical harm to others because of use of drugs or behavior while under the influence of a drug
  • Continued use of drugs despite the problems caused by its use.

Drug addiction includes three or more of the following:

  • Loss of interest in activities that were enjoyable
  • Multiple tries to stop or cut back on drug use have failed
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Behaviors that are centered around staying or getting a drug high
  • Physical or mental symptoms of withdrawal when without the drug
  • Having to use larger and larger amounts to get the same effect
  • Continued use of drugs despite the problems caused by its use.

Both drug abuse and drug addiction can be harmful, so it is important to seek help for those affected by either condition.

What should I do if I think my child is dealing with medication misuse, abuse or addiction?

  • Talk to your child's doctor if you think your child may be dealing with medication misuse, abuse or addiction. 
  • Keep prescription medication in a locked cabinet or lock box AND out of the reach of children.