Prescription Drug Abuse Among Youths

Pain Relievers Drug of Choice for Adolescents, Young Adults

From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 16, 2003 -- Reports indicate illegal drug use is declining among children and young adults, but new research suggests that they are abusing prescription drugs, especially pain relievers, at an increasing rate.

The trend "gives us new cause for concern," says H. Westley Clark, MD, JD, MPH, who is director of the substance abuse treatment at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that almost 3 million adolescents and about 7 million young adults from ages 18 to 25 had used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes at least once in their lives. That number caps a steady increase beginning with the mid-1980s.

Increase in prescription drug abuse is most prominent for pain relievers, but use of stimulants and tranquilizers is also rising.

Young people who abused prescription drugs were also more likely to use illegal drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, or hallucinogens. The study researchers declined to draw any causal connection between the two behaviors, but "once you go down that road, whether the chicken or the egg came first is less critical. You get caught in the complex use pattern of legal and illegal drugs," says Clark.

Many abuse prescription drugs on the misunderstanding that they are safe, when in fact they can cause addiction and severe side effects. Opiate-based pain relievers are quite addictive and can slow breathing to potentially deadly slow levels, said John K. Jenkins, MD, FACCP, director of the office of new drugs at FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

Kyle Moores, a 19-year old who is recovering from prescription drug addiction, spoke about the price that he paid. A friend offered him prescription pain relievers for free, but then as his dependency grew, so did the price. In time, he was paying $50 a pill and maxing out credit cards to continue his habit. That's when he knew he had to get help. "I didn't have anything left," he says.

Commonly abused prescription drugs include codeine, methadone, oxycodone, and Ritalin. Parents should warn their children of the side effects and addictive nature of prescription pain relievers and other prescription drugs, Clark says. To avoid potential misuse, it is important that parents dispose of any unused prescription drugs by flushing them down the toilet.

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SOURCES: Westley Clark, MD, JD, MPH, director of substance abuse treatment, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration • John K. Jenkins, MD, FACCP, director of the office of new drugs, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, FDA • Kyle Moores.
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