Prescription drug abuse among teens has been on the rise and in recent years it has reached new heights. A 2013 study from the University of Michigan reported that 10.4 percent of teenagers who went to the emergency room had abused prescription drugs in the previous year. Of the 2,100 kids between the ages of 14 and 29 surveyed, they found that 8.7 had taken painkillers illegally, including methadone, OxyContin or hydrocodone, and 5.4 percent had taken Valium, Xanax, Ativan and other sedatives.
Teens are able to obtain prescription drugs more easily now because they’re prescribed more often. The rate of prescriptions for sedatives and painkillers has more than doubled between 1994 and 2007. Doctors used to prescribe them for severe chronic pain, but have more frequently been giving them to patients with any kind of pain.
This is the first time researchers have done a study in an emergency room setting, even though reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have estimated that around 700,000 emergency visits per year are the result of prescription drug overdoses. They also estimate that there are 100 deaths per day related to overdoses of prescription drugs. The CDC believes it’s an epidemic. ER visits for painkiller overdoses have doubled in the past five years, reaching the half a million mark.
The ER is one of the places most people secure prescription drugs in the first place. Doctors prescribe painkillers and sedatives for emergency use so patients often leave with them more frequently than if they had seen a regular family physician.
ER patients are more likely to be uninsured because they come from low-income backgrounds. They go to the ER for care because they often don’t get preventive care and that’s the only option for them. They are more vulnerable to developing an addiction to prescription drugs. Reports from the CDC estimate that the non-medical use of prescription painkillers costs more than $72.5 billion each year in direct health care costs, including trips to the ER.
Researchers think that ER doctors need to be more aware of the risk that their patients could be there to get a prescription for painkillers they don’t need. The study indicated that teens who misuse prescription drugs have probably also used marijuana or taken cough medicine recreationally in the previous year, and were more likely to have ridden with a drunk driver.
One of the authors of the report noted that the ER could be a great screening tool for finding teenagers who are abusing prescription drugs. It can also be a place to provide information that may prevent abuse before it occurs. Doctors would need to be more aware of the drugs they prescribe to ensure they are not giving them to patients who want them for recreational use, especially if they are in an emergency room setting and don’t have access to the patient’s medical history.
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