10 Percent of Teens in ER Report Abusing Prescription Drugs
A history of prescription drug abuse is fairly common among teenagers who visit hospital emergency rooms, according to research from the University of Michigan. The study, published in 2013, found that 10.4 percent of teenagers in the ER reported having abused prescription sedatives or painkillers in the previous 12 months.
Prescription drug abuse is a nationwide epidemic, and the number of teens abusing these medications is of particular concern. The authors of the University of Michigan study were particularly interested in exploring abuse by teens in hospital emergency rooms because of how frequently ER patients leave the hospital with strong prescription medications.
People who visit the emergency room are also more likely to be low-income patients without health insurance that covers primary care. While many people who end up in emergency rooms are genuinely in need of emergency care, many more are there because it is the only healthcare option available to them. The low-income population is particularly vulnerable to substance abuse, including prescription drug abuse.
Prescriptions More Available to Teens
The researchers surveyed 2,100 teenagers and young adults between the ages of 14 and 20. Of those who participated in the study, 8.7 had abused painkillers, including methadone, OxyContin or hydrocodone, while 5.4 had abused sedatives such as Valium, Xanax or Ativan.
The Michigan researchers found that the vast majority of the teenagers in the study with a history of prescription drug abuse did not have prescriptions for the drugs they used. Approximately 15 percent of the teens who abused prescription painkillers like OxyContin had prescriptions, while only 12 percent of the teens who abused sedatives like Valium had prescriptions.
The widespread availability of prescription drugs frequently makes it easy for teens to get their hands on these medications. Statistics show that prescriptions for sedatives and painkillers more than doubled between 1994 and 2007. Part of the reason prescriptions for drugs have increased is that physicians were concerned that they had been undertreating severe chronic pain. However, there are worries that the pendulum has now swung the other way, with physicians too quick to prescribe strong medication whenever pain is present.
Teens at High Risk
Sometimes teens who visit the emergency room are there because of prescription drug abuse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that ER visits from prescription drug overdoses doubled between 2007 and 2012. Research has also found that teenagers who use medications without a prescription are more likely to abuse other substances, more likely to drink and drive and more likely to be passengers with drivers who are drunk. All of which, of course, further increase their risk of a medical emergency.
Teens may also be vulnerable when they leave the emergency room, particularly if they have a history of prescription drug abuse. One in seven participants in the Michigan study received new prescriptions when they were discharged from the emergency room, including prescriptions for potentially addictive, painkilling drugs.
While the risk of addiction is quite small when these drugs are taken for a genuine medical need and according to the physician’s direction, some experts worry that physicians are not sufficiently concerned about the potential for misuse and abuse, or sufficiently cautious when prescribing potentially addictive medications.
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