Prescription Drug use Doubles in Teens and Young Adults

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Prescription drugs

Prescription drug use has doubled among teens and young adults since 1994, found in a new analysis. Researchers warn that higher use of prescription drugs among teens and young adults could lead to higher rates of abuse and sharing. Many of the drugs being handed out from emergency room visits, ambulatory clinics and physician offices have a high profile for abuse and are controlled substances.

The findings come from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS) and National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS) that included teens age 16 t 19 and young adults age 20 to 29. The results were compared to prescribing patterns from 1994. The findings showed stimulants, narcotics and sedatives have all been increasingly prescribed to teens and young adults and are published in the journal Pediatrics, and conducted by University of Rochester Medical Center researchers.

Controlled Drug Prescribing among Youth Mandates Awareness

The study authors found prescription drug rates doubled from 8.3 percent to 16.1 percent in young adults and from 6.4 to 11.2 percent in adolescents in all settings. Robert J. Fortuna, M.D., M.P.H., principal investigator of the study and assistant professor of Pediatrics and Internal Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center says, At times, it can be a delicate balance between treating a problem and inadvertently causing one," but physicians need to be aware that controlled medications can be shared and misused.


The study looked at what types of drugs were prescribed, in what setting and with attention to demographic and geographic factors. They found controlled substances were often prescribed for common ailments like headache and back pain. The findings also show increased stimulant prescribing as well as sedatives.

The study did not look at appropriateness of the prescriptions. The authors say pain management is important and part of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations that recommends pain be treated as importantly as measuring temperature, blood pressure and pulse. Awareness of the health implications of insomnia, combined with direct marketing of drugs to consumers may also account for increased sedative prescribing in teens and young adults.

Dr. Fortuna says the findings don’t mean drugs are being shared or even abused – the message is about physician awareness about the potential harm. Given the increased rate of prescription use in teens and young adults found in the study, he says physicians need to have open discussions with patients about not sharing drugs and warn about the dangers of abuse.

PEDIATRICS (doi:10.1542/peds.2010-0791)



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