16 year-olds at peak risk of misusing prescription drugs

16 year-olds at peak risk of misusing prescription drugs

By Margaret Rogers

Recent reports suggest that doctors and health professionals are prescribing more pain relievers than ever before, and research suggests an increased misuse of such drugs, according to James C. Anthony of Michigan State University (MSU).  He also says that research shows an increased rate of overdose deaths from pain killers.

Anthony supervised research conducted by Elizabeth Meier and Jonathan Troost also from MSU.  Anthony also states that the peak risk for misusing prescription pain relievers occurs in mid-adolescence.  Specifically at around the age of 16 and that this is earlier than many experts thought.

‘While much of the previous thinking was that misuse of these drugs emerged in the final year of high school and during the college-age years, we found that for adolescents the peak risk of starting to misuse these painkillers generally occurs earlier, not during the postsecondary school years.  We suspect many physicians, other prescribing clinicians and public health professionals, will share our surprise in this finding,’ said Anthony.

Using data obtained from the 2004 -2008 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, the researchers were able to identify when young people are most commonly using prescription pain relievers for unapproved use such as getting high.  They found that about 1 in 60 people between the ages of 12 and 21 start using prescription pain killers every year for purposes other than those which were intended when prescribed.  However, they also found that there is a peak risk period at around the age of 16 when about 1 in 30 young people start to use painkillers as a ‘high’ or for purposes other than those intended by the prescriber.

Anthony said ‘Getting a firm grasp on when the first onset occurs is very important when we try to take public health action to prevent first occurrence.  With the peak risk at age 16 years and a notable acceleration in risk between ages 13 and 14 years, any strict focus on college students or 12th graders might be an example of too little too late.’  He also says that the study results show a requirement to strengthen prescribing guidelines.

Non-opioid pain relievers such as ibuprofen can be quite effective but when opioid pain killers are prescribed for adolescents or teens the number of tablets can be limited or kept under lock and key, Anthony says, adding ‘Patients in transient pain are often given a larger opioid prescription than is needed.  It can end up stacked in the medicine cabinet, available to anyone in or visiting the household.’

The study findings are published in the Archives of Paediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, a network publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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