How to Identify Common Pills Misused by Teens

Identify the pills, then have a serious conversation

Teenage girl (13-15) pouring out pills into hand, rear view

SW Productions / Photodisc / Getty Images

In This Article

If you've just found a few pills in your child's pocket while washing their clothes, you're not the first. Considering the epidemic of prescription drug misuse and addiction and an uptick in overdoses around the United States, it's all too common. Addiction is an inclusive disease that does not discriminate by social or economic status.

Unfortunately, some kids use and sometimes become addicted to drugs. This behavior goes far beyond "traditional" substances, such as alcohol, nicotine, or marijuana. Today, kids and adults alike also misuse substances like cough medicines, glue, and prescription medications for recreational use.

Learning to identify commonly misused pills can help you begin a conversation with your child about the dangers of substance use and addiction.

Commonly Misused Pills

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), commonly misused classes of prescription drugs include:

  • Central nervous system (CNS) depressants: Prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorders
  • Opioids: Prescribed to treat pain
  • Stimulants: Prescribed to treat narcolepsy, ADHD, and obesity

More specifically, the most commonly misused prescription drugs by brand and generic name include:

  • Adderall, Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine)
  • Darvon (propoxyphene)
  • Demerol (meperidine)
  • Dilaudid (hydromorphone)
  • Lomotil (diphenoxylate)
  • Nembutal (pentobarbital sodium)
  • OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet, Endocet (oxycodone)
  • Ritalin (methylphenidate)
  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet (hydrocodone)
  • Xanax (alprazolam)

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) offers a helpful booklet for parents that can tell you more about these drugs called Prescription for Disaster: How Teens Abuse Medicine. It includes photos and many of the common street names as well. Familiarizing yourself with slang terminology can help you decode your teen's conversations if needed.

How to Identify Common Pills

One of the first steps you may want to take when you find an unknown pill is to identify which drug it is. You can use the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) identification database, Pillbox, to run a search for any mysterious pills you find. Knowing the medications that are misused most often and how to search for pills will help you figure that out.

By law, every pill, tablet, or capsule approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must be unique—in shape, pattern (two-toned, lined, speckled, etc.), and color—to make identifying each pill easier. In addition, pills are imprinted with a combination of numbers and, in some cases, a logo.

If the tool does not produce any results, double-check the imprint. You might need to use a magnifying glass on very small pills to distinguish the letters and numbers. If it's not in the database, it's likely not FDA-approved and may be an illegal or counterfeit drug or alternative remedy. In this case, your local pharmacist may be able to help you.

Adderall

One small, round, blue pill that you might also find is Adderall. It has the marking "AD" on one side and the number "10" on the other. Some teenagers take Adderall without a prescription simply to help them concentrate and to do better at school. Others take it to get high, either getting it from a friend or buying it at school.

Adderall pills can either be swallowed or ground up and snorted for a quicker effect.

Dilaudid

Dilaudid is a narcotic analgesic that is often mixed with alcohol and/or benzodiazepines to get a "better high." The small tablets can be orange (2mg), yellow (4mg), or white (8mg), and imprinted with the manufacturer's name. Pills can be round or triangular in shape. Dilaudid also comes in liquid form. 

DXM

A round, red pill with the markings "C C + C" (for Coricidin HBP Cough & Cold Tablets) might also be among the cache of meds you just found in your kid's pocket. There are many similar pills, but only one has those markings.

Although it is just a cold and cough medication, many teens actually misuse the dextromethorphan (also called DXM) contained in these little red pills. Coricidin HBP Cough and Cold is also known as "triple C" in the illicit drug market.

In addition to dextromethorphan, this cold medication also contains an antihistamine. Taken in higher than recommended doses, it can produce a quick high, hallucinations, and/or dissociation. Deaths from kids misusing DXM and Coricidin have been reported.

Ritalin

Ritalin, also known as methylphenidate, is a stimulant drug that is about the size and shape of aspirin. The small pills can be pale yellow (5mg), pale green (10mg), or both white and yellow (20mg), and are stamped with the manufacturer's name, Ciba.

When taken as prescribed, Ritalin is not addictive. Yet teens tend to take these drugs in higher doses—and sometimes by snorting or injecting the drug—which increases the risk of addiction.

Xanax

Xanax is one of a group of addictive prescription medications known as benzodiazepines. It comes in a variety of shapes and colors and is imprinted with the manufacturer's name and strength including:

  • White, oval, scored tablet with XANAX 0.25
  • Peach, oval, scored tablets with XANAX 0.5
  • Blue, oval, scored tablets with XANAX 0.25
  • White, oblong, scored with three lines with “XANAX” on one side and "2" on the other side

Teenagers often think prescription drugs like Xanax are safer than illicit street drugs, but these medications can be very dangerous, especially when mixed with painkillers or alcohol. In fact, more than 30% of overdoses involving opioids also involve benzodiazepines, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.  

Vicodin

These white, oblong pills imprinted with the manufacturer name on one side and strength on the other side are one of the most commonly misused prescription painkillers. Teens who misuse this drug can easily overdose, especially if they take the drug while drinking alcohol.

What to Do Next

Once you identify the pills, it's time to decide what to do about it. Usually, this involves discussing the pills with your child. Sharing what you found with your teen in a non-judgmental way conveying your concerns is a place to start.

If you don't think that a meeting with your child will go well, you might talk to a relative or adult your child respects. They may be willing to sit down and have a conversation with your teen on your behalf. This may help them open up about what's going on and give you some insight into the next steps to take.

You can also go the professional route and schedule a visit with your pediatrician or a child psychologist. If you raise your concerns about your suspicions that your child is using drugs, they can bring up the subject during the appointment.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

While it can be shocking to find pills in your teen's possession, try to approach the situation with a clear head. There are a number of steps you can take that can get them the help they need but starting with a calm, caring demeanor is a good place to start. Listening to what they have to say rather than heading straight into consequences or lectures can help take your conversation where you want it to go.

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Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Misuse of Prescription Drugs. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Updated December 2018.

  2. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Updated April 1, 2019

  3. Drug Facts: Amphetamines. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

  4. Food and Drug Administration. Dilaudid® Oral Liquid and Dilaudid® Tablets. (hydromorphone hydrochloride) CS-II.

  5. Dextromethorphan. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Published July 2019.

  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Benzodiazepines and Opioids. March 2018.

  7. National Institutes of Health. Vicodin (hydrocodone bitartrate and acetaminophen) Tablet.