A surge in prescription drug abuse cases is fueling fears that more D.C. metro-area teenagers are breaking into parents' medicine cabinets and trying friends' pills to get what's perceived as a less-dangerous high.

Local public health and safety officials say they're seeing more young people abusing prescription drugs. And some of those cases have been tragic.

A 15-year-old in southern Virginia died in an overdose on oxycodone, Valium and methamphetamine last year. In 2009, two 26-year-olds in Prince William County who began abusing prescription drugs in their teens fatally overdosed. And Lea Edgecomb, a 17-year-old from Gaithersburg, and her mother have begun speaking with community groups about Lea's 2009 near-fatal overdose on heroin, which she turned to after first using oxycodone.

The drugs
Commonly abused prescription drugs fall into three general classes:
Opiates: Painkillers such as oxycodone, Vicodin and morphine
Stimulants: Drugs like Ritalin, Adderall and other amphetamines that increase alertness and energy, and are prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Sedatives: Anxiety medications, such as Xanax and Valium, and sleeping pills
Sources: National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Cathleen Clancy

Such cases have spurred authorities to ramp up prevention and education efforts.

"It's different from other drug abuse trends because you have young people getting pills for free from the homes of family members and friends," said former White House drug czar John Walters. "Barriers like finding strangers, paying money and having to go someplace strange are not there."

The number of teens who have abused prescription drugs is high -- only alcohol and marijuana are more abused by high schoolers, said Beth Kane Davidson, director of the addiction treatment center at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda.

About one in five high school students nationwide report having abused prescription drugs, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show. In Arlington, about 10 percent of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders have abused the drugs, according to an Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth and Families survey. In Fairfax County, 11.5 percent of youths in those age groups have abused painkillers and 8.5 percent have abused non-painkiller prescription drugs, the county's youth survey found.

Maryland saw a 106 percent increase in people seeking treatment for abuse of prescription opiates between 2007 to 2010, according to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In 2010, 60 percent of those seeking treatment were younger than 30.

Authorities say education is key to combating the problem. Alexandria officials have sent fliers about prescription drug abuse to schools, parents and senior facilities, said Noraine Buttar, coordinator for the Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition.

Police in Montgomery and Fairfax have organized educational events at schools and with community groups about the issue.

"I think we're on the right track with getting out and talking to the parents and teachers," said Fairfax Capt. David Russell, an organized crime and narcotics officer. "We can't go out and patrol all the medicine cabinets in Fairfax."

The rise in abuse cases is fueled by the easy availability of prescription drugs, experts say.

More aging grandparents are getting pain medications, which teens can find, said James McMurrer, a child and adolescent psychologist at the Inova Kellar Center in Fairfax. Kids who play sports often receive the strong medications themselves, he added.

Prescription drugs are also readily concealed from their parents and teachers. The pills are easy to hide and, unlike alcohol, are impossible to smell, said Linda Simoni-Wastila, a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Pharmacy.

That means all guardians need to be vigilant about storing and disposing medications, said Dr. Cathleen Clancy, associate medical director of the National Capital Poison Center.

"All children are at risk of trying these substances," she said.