Half of Teens Are OTC Drug Illiterate

An alarming 50% of teens aren't properly educated on OTC medications, potentially leading to dangerous misuse of these drugs.

An alarming 50% of teens aren’t properly educated on OTC medications, potentially leading to dangerous misuse of these drugs.

National surveys of parents and sixth graders revealed that about half of the teenagers are self-medicating with OTC drugs, even though they lack information on proper use.

National Council on Patient Information and Education executive vice president Ray Bullman told Pharmacy Times that these knowledge gaps could have harmful consequences.

“All medicines, including OTCs, pose some potential risks, [and] this is especially true when mixed with drugs or alcohol,” Bullman said. “Oftentimes, tweens and teens’ misuse is triggered by lack of information, as well as feelings of invincibility.”

Acetaminophen, for example, is a common remedy for cold and fever, as well as muscle ache. In fact, it is an ingredient in more than 600 OTC and prescription drugs. For this reason, many teenagers may be unaware that acetaminophen overuse can be dangerous.

In the same surveys, half of parents reported feeling unsure about whether or not OTC medication safety is taught in school, and they also worried that their children don’t adequately understand the information on drug labels.

In the absence of school interventions, pharmacists can play a pivotal role in raising awareness about the potential dangers of OTC medications among teenagers before they develop bad habits.

“As the medication expert, [the pharmacist can] play a very important—and visible—role in the community promoting safe OTC use among teens,” Bullman said.

By interacting with a parent, a pharmacist can gain insight into all OTC medications, prescription drugs, dietary supplements and herbal remedies taken by various members of a family. With this information, pharmacists can provide guidance to parents and children on possible drug interactions and dangers associated with their medication regimens.

Parents can also help improve their children’s OTC drug literacy by reflecting on their own medicine-taking behaviors.

Bullman explained that attitudes about these behaviors are important “as children often mimic what they see and hear.” Teens can learn from their parents’ examples on “proper selection, administration, monitoring effect, safe storage, and disposal of unused medicines.”