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ER visits tied to ADHD meds quadrupled in 6 years

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Abuse of ADHD meds sends increasing number of young adults to ER departments

The number of young adults who end up in the emergency room after taking ADHD medications like Adderall, Ritalin and other stimulants, has quadrupled in recent years, according to federal health officials this week.

The dramatic rise in ER visits provides a startling example of the dangers that can occur from the wide use of medicines for conditions like attention deficit disorder.

Among those taking ADHD medications between the ages of 18 and 34, ER visits shot up to 23,000 in 2011, increasing from 5,600 in 2005, according to national data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The increase was especially evident among 18- to 25-year-olds, according to Dr. Peter J. Delany, director of the office that oversees statistics for the administration, who said that it was part of a broader pattern of negative health effects from prescription drug abuse across society in the U.S.

While researchers have not completely determined why there’s been such an increase, Delany said that one clue was how those who abused prescription drugs obtained them. For example, in 2011, over 50 percent obtained the drugs at no charge from a friend or relative, while 17 percent actually purchased them from a friend or a relative, which reveals that much of an abuser’s misuse of medication is not prescribed by their physician.

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“We have a huge issue of easy access,” explained Dr. Elinore F. McCance-Katz, the chief medical officer of the substance abuse administration, who added that this issue also applies to stimulants and opioids, which are widely abused prescription drugs as well.

The study focused on emergency room visits that were the result of abuse or misuse of the stimulants, such as taking doses above the prescribed amounts, or consuming alcohol in combination with stimulant medications.

Misuse of such medications has been associated with heart and blood vessel problems, as well as drug abuse or dependence. When combined with alcohol, stimulant medications can cover up the effects of alcohol intoxication; thus, increasing the risk of alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related injuries.

According to the study authors, approximately one-third of all emergency room visits linked to stimulant use among those aged 18 to 34 also involved alcohol.

The stimulants in the report include prescription drugs, such as ADHD medications and drugs used to treat narcolepsy, a sleep disorder. The report also includes stimulants like over-the-counter products containing caffeine, as well as caffeine pills and caffeinated energy drinks

Illegal stimulants, including methamphetamine, a rapidly rising drug of abuse, were not included in the report. And the report also said that the use of caffeinated energy drinks did not play a major role in the increase in emergency room visits.

SOURCE: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The DAWN Report, “Emergency Department Visits Involving Nonmedical Use of Central Nervous System Stimulants among Adults Aged 18 to 34 Increased between 2005 and 2011,” (August 8, 2013)