Teen Survey

Quick Facts

Widespread Use

  • Nearly as many American teenagers (75 percent) as adults (84%) have used OTC pain medications in the past year.
  • Nearly two in three of teen respondents (64%) said they have used an OTC pain medication in the last six months, most commonly for headaches, sports or exercise-related pain and muscle aches, or menstrual pain.
  • The survey found: Incidence of use of OTC pain medications daily or several times per week is 15 percent among 13- to 15-year-olds, and 21 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds report using OTC pain medications at least several times a week.

Use without confidence

Although the majority of teens self report having used OTC pain medications (PMs) recently, overall, teens lack knowledge about OTC pain medications. In addition, there is little awareness of the active ingredients in their pain medications and they lack familiarity with acetaminophen.

Nearly two-thirds of teens (64%) have used OTC pain medications in the past six months. However, nearly three-quarters (73%) of teen OTC pain medication users do not know or are not sure of the main active ingredient in the OTC pain medication they take most frequently. For example, fewer than one-fifth of teens (16%) say they are very or fairly familiar with the active ingredient acetaminophen. One-third of teens (33%) say they do not believe acetaminophen is sold under the brand Tylenol.

Dangers of mixing products

  • Despite the fact that nearly half of teens indicate some uncertainty about the safety of using two products that contain acetaminophen at the same time, some teen OTC pain medication users are using OTC pain medications and other medications concurrently, a practice advocates and government health experts strongly caution against.
  • Nearly half of teens (48%) are unsure as to whether it is safe to take two products containing acetaminophen at the same time,.
  • Nearly half of teens (44%) are unsure if it is okay to take OTC PMs while taking an OTC product for cold or sinus conditions, and 18 percent of teen OTC PM users say they have taken an OTC PMs with an OTC for cold or flu.
  • While use of prescription painkillers among teens is low (10%), nearly all teen respondents were unable to correctly identify APAP as the prescription abbreviation for acetaminophen. As 44% of their adult counterparts said they had used prescription and OTC painkillers concurrently, advocates are strongly concerned about teens’ ability to identify what they are taking in order to avoid overdose.


Some teens admit they are using OTC PMs other than directed on the label.

  • One-quarter (24%) of teen OTC PM users report they have taken the next dose sooner than directed; 15% report they have taken more pills at a single time or more than the number of doses per day as directed on the label (7%).
  • Nearly one third (32%) of teens think that it is either not possible (9%) or are not sure that one can overdose on OTC (23%)

Parental influence

Most young people rely most heavily on parental guidance when it comes to making health decisions including taking OTC PMs, which, on the surface seems wise, but could pose risks, considering the self-reported habits of some of the adults surveyed.

  • Two-thirds (66%) of teens report their parent(s) influence them the most when it comes to making decisions about their health.
  • More than two-thirds (69%) of teen OTC PM users consult with their parent(s) before taking the OTC PM. 
  • In general, a relatively small but significant number of teens say they would take OTC medicines without first consulting with a parent (22% say they never or rarely consult a parent) and only 39% say they always check with a parent. Older teens are less likely to consult a parent than younger teens.
  • Only 4% of teens have consulted a healthcare professional always or often about information that was unclear to them on an OTC drug package.
  • 66% of teens say they are most influenced by parents in terms of decision about their health. 12% say other people (like friends, siblings, teachers) and 11% say doctors are the “most” influential.

Following (or not) the labels

Most teens say they read the directions on a new OTC PM, but other elements are read less often. Teens admit to not reading the labels every time they take the medications.

  • Two-thirds of teens (63%) say they “always or often” read the directions the first time they take an OTC medication.
  • Only one in four (28%) teens say they read the active ingredients the first time they take an OTC product, 44% say they never / rarely read this information
  • Roughly half of teens (48 percent) say they always/often read the label information on warnings

About the Survey

NCL commissioned this survey with an unrestricted educational grant from McNeil Consumer Healthcare.

This Knowledge of and Behavior Around Acetaminophen Use Survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of the National Consumers League between May 29. 2009 and June 11, 2009 among 536 youth, aged 13 to 17 and 1,731 adults aged 18 and older, with an oversample of 200 English-speaking Hispanic adults. Complete survey results, fact sheets for consumers, and other resources are available at www.nclnet.org .

About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America's pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org .

About Harris Interactive®

Harris Interactive is a global leader in custom market research. With a long and rich history in multimodal research, powered by our science and technology, we assist clients in achieving business results. Harris Interactive serves clients globally through our North American, European and Asian offices and a network of independent market research firms. For more information, please visit www.harrisinteractive.com .

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