Abuse of ADHD Drugs on the Rise

MONDAY Aug. 24, 2009 -- As more and more prescriptions are being written for medications to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), more and more children are abusing these drugs.

That's the conclusion of new research in the September issue of Pediatrics that found the rate of ADHD medication abuse was up 76 percent from 1998 to 2005, and at the same time, the rates of prescriptions for these medications rose about 80 percent.

"We looked at all the poison control centers across the nation and found a significant increase in the number of calls for ADHD medication abuse that parallels the amount of prescriptions being written," said Dr. Jennifer Setlik, an emergency physician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio and a study author.

What's more, Setlik said, is that this study is "not an estimate of the total problem" because it looks only at data from poison control centers, but it gives doctors and parents a snapshot of the trend toward rising abuse of these medications with increasing availability.

ADHD affects between 8 percent and 12 percent of children, and as many as 4 percent of adults worldwide, according to background information in the study. The disorder is commonly treated with stimulant medications, which have a seemingly paradoxical effect on people with ADHD, allowing them to concentrate and function more effectively. The drugs most often prescribed are mixed amphetamine salts (Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta), according to the study.

The study also reports that next to marijuana, prescription medications are the most common drugs that teenagers use to get high. This may be because teens believe these medications are safe because they've been prescribed by a doctor, or simply because of their availability.

To assess whether increased availability of ADHD medications would also cause a rise in the number of teens abusing the drugs, Setlik and her colleagues reviewed data from the National Poison Data System, which includes information from poison control centers across the United States.

The researchers looked for cases of intentional abuse or misuse of ADHD medications in youths 13 to 19 years old from 1998 through 2005.

They found that over the eight-year study period, the number of calls to poison control centers regarding ADHD medication use went up 76 percent, from 330 calls during the first year to 581 calls the last year.

At the same time, overall ADHD prescriptions increased by 80 percent for all children and teens, and about 86 percent for kids between 10 and 19 years old.

The data didn't include information about whether a teen abusing an ADHD medication was the one who had been prescribed the drug or whether the abuser was a teen without ADHD who was taking the medications.

Parents "need to be aware of the potential for the abuse of these medications for teens that have and haven't been prescribed them," Setlik said.

If a child is taking ADHD medication, she recommended keeping an eye on the amount the child is using.

Tom Hedrick, one of the founding members of The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, agreed that parents need to monitor any prescription medications their children use to make sure that they're being used properly. He also advised parents to safeguard their own prescriptions.

But what's critical, he said, is letting your kids know that taking drugs that weren't prescribed for them, or taking more than what was prescribed is not OK.

"We have to start thinking proactively instead of reactively," said Hedrick. "Fifty percent of kids report never hearing a single word about prescription drug abuse, but these drugs are just as dangerous, just as addictive and just as deadly as illicit drugs."

"Right now, parents may feel a sense of relief that their kids are taking medicines and not street drugs," he said. "But what we really have is the perfect storm because there's a lack of awareness and an ease of availability."

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more on ADHD medications and possible abuse of them.

Posted: August 2009


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