• Pre-Collegiate Global Health Review

Painkiller Abuse in Teenagers: Misconceptions, Trends, and the Importance of Knowledge

Suh Hyun Lee, Yongsan International School of Seoul, Seoul, Republic of Korea


Drug consumption has only been increasing worldwide for various reasons: advancement of healthcare, aging of the world population, and the increased affordability of medicine. With this rise in drug consumption, “drug abuse” has become a key topic. When the issue of drug abuse in teenagers is brought up, many people may think of teenagers smoking marijuana or abusing highly addictive drugs such as cocaine or heroin. However, there is a different type of drug abuse among teenagers that is a rising problem around the world: the use of painkillers. Thus, raising awareness regarding the rising issues of painkiller overdose among teenagers and creating ways to protect our young adults is essential.

Introduction to the Problem

To begin, painkillers, also known as analgesic drugs, are defined as “[drugs] that [relieve] pain selectively without blocking the conduction of nerve impulses, markedly altering sensory perception, or affecting consciousness” (Bloom, 2022). There are two main types of painkillers: anti-inflammatory drugs and opioids (Bloom, 2022). While opioids directly affect the brain, anti-inflammatory drugs “alleviate pain by reducing local inflammatory responses” (Bloom, 2022). Specifically, some examples of painkillers include:

  • Opioids

  • Fentanyl

  • Acetaminophen

  • Tylenol

  • Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

  • Aspirin

  • Naproxen

  • Aleve

  • Ibuprofen

  • and Advil (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2016).

One of the most commonly abused drug types include both prescription and nonprescription painkillers, and the overdose of painkillers have become a growing problem worldwide. Over the past few decades, non-medical usage of prescription drugs has increased significantly, with painkillers being the most commonly abused type of drugs (Guo et al., 2015). According to a study done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the number of people dependent on painkillers has soared from 1.4 million in 2004 to 1.9 million in 2010 (NIDA, 2018). Furthermore, adolescents have the highest risk of becoming addicted through the misuse of painkillers, which is most likely because of the lower perceived risks of these drugs (Fleary et al., 2013).

Pain medications are also very widely available, as teenagers can get them from friends, family, or even convenience stores (Sussman et al., 2012). In addition, until the early 2000’s in South Korea, “physicians and pharmacists were allowed to both prescribe and dispense drugs, and their behavior was driven by economic incentives, which resulted in the overuse of drugs,” and this was the same for other Asian countries such as Japan and China (Kwon, 2003). Drug misuse, overdose, and abuse are very dangerous, especially for young adults who are still developing and whose hormone levels are rapidly changing.

Non-prescription Painkillers

Non-prescription painkillers are very easy to acquire as many pain medications are available without a prescription at pharmacies or even convenience stores. Though they are often perceived as safer drugs, even nonprescription pain medication can bring harmful side effects. For example, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), which are a type of drug that could easily be purchased without prescription, can cause various damages to the body, including but not limited to:

  • gastrointestinal injuries

  • ulcers

  • small bowel injuries

  • cardiovascular damages (Scheiman, 2016).

Prescription Painkillers

The non-medical usage of prescription drugs among teenagers has been increasing, and this has become a significant problem worldwide (Sussman et al., 2012). However, not a lot of people are aware of its severe consequences and “the dangers of these prescription drugs outside of medical regimen because they are widely used for legitimate purposes” (Johnston et al., 2022). Furthermore, these drugs are also being advertised directly to various customers including teenagers as “safe drugs” (Johnston et al., 2022). But it is increasingly difficult to restrict the usage of prescription drugs and painkillers as they are necessary for various illnesses and disorders (Sussman et al., 2012).

Moreover, in South Korea, because of the well-developed healthcare systems and the wide affordability of hospital treatment, it is relatively easy to receive prescription for pain medication (Ahn et al., 2011). Thus, in order to prevent teenagers’ misuse of such drugs, other measures such as education programs are necessary.

Misconceptions Regarding Antibiotics

Figure 1: Knowledge and preventive behaviors related to the overuse and misuse of antibiotics (Choi & Kim, 2019).

As shown in Figure 1, there are numerous misconceptions among students and a considerable amount of students believe the misconceptions regarding the usage of antibiotics, which is also a type of medication that helps relieve pain during an infection (Choi & Kim, 2019). With these misconceptions in mind, many teenagers would take antibiotics and painkillers without hesitation or doubt.

Figure 2: Nonmedical Use of Prescription Drugs among Adolescents, Older vs. Younger Teens (McCabe et al., 2007).

Figure 2 depicts that when comparing the ages of teenagers, older teenagers have a greater likelihood of abusing prescription drugs compared to teenagers of younger age (McCabe et al., 2007).


Once again, it is crucial especially in today’s society, for friends, family, teachers, and schools to cooperate to educate teenagers on the safe usage of medicines (Friedman, 2006). Although governments have been making efforts to initiate substance abuse education programs, they have not necessarily been effective (Sharma and Branscum, 2013). Thus, it is necessary for adults to come up with programs that would successfully inform students of the harms and risks of painkiller misuse. With awareness and education programs in place, it is possible to limit addiction and misuse of drugs.