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The Hidden Epidemic

Sep 30, 2011 04:03PM ● By Wendy Sipple

According to the “Lock Your Meds” campaign, prescription drug abuse is the fastest-growing drug problem among 12- to 17-year-olds. That’s right – I said “prescription” drugs.

As a mother of six, with two kids just out of this demographic and two on their way into it, including one who takes prescription ADHD medication, I was completely shocked by this statistic. In fact, when I started doing research on the topic, I had to completely rethink my preconceived notion of drug abuse. Ironically, within one week of learning about the epidemic I began seeing articles about it everywhere: The Sacramento Bee, Roseville Press-Tribune and various other news sources.

With this in mind, I decided to talk with my children’s pediatrician, Dr. Jeffrey Fisch at Kaiser Permanente, who informed me that “drug seekers” – kids who come in with suspicious pain needs, most often toward the end of the day – have been on his radar for years. In these cases, he typically refuses to prescribe or flags the patient’s file for future reference.

“Lock Your Meds” statistics claim that the number of teens going into treatment for addiction to prescription drugs has increased by more than 300 percent. “I feel like this problem doesn’t get much attention in the media,” says Dr. Khuram Arif, department chair of pediatrics at Mercy Medical Group. “For example, I would love to see billboards about the dangers of prescription drug abuse in children and teens. It’s a serious health issue that parents should know about.”

So, how are youth obtaining their prescriptions drugs? In my experience, pharmacies tend to be fairly strict about how often they allow patients to reorder and whom they allow to pick up prescriptions, but teens are obviously finding a way to work the system. “They may raid their parents’ medicine cabinet or the medicine cabinets of other homes that they may visit,” says Family Medicine Physician Margaret Planta, M.D. with Sutter Medical. “They may have a friend who has a valid prescription and share his/her medication with them (this happens even among adults). They may also attend parties where teens pool prescriptions they acquired from their raids and start mixing and experimenting.”

Also frightening, emergency room visits for prescription drug abuse have more than doubled since 2004, with 48 percent of all ER visits for prescription drug abuse involving people ages 12-20, according to “Lock Your Meds.” And – the most shocking statistic that rocked my maternal foundation – prescription drugs are now involved in more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.

“I think that teens are typically ignorant about the risks of abusing prescription drugs, including the risks associated with overdosing on the drug and the risks of mixing the various drugs (e.g., mixing narcotics, sedatives, antihistamines and alcohol could lead to respiratory depression and death),” says Dr. Planta.  “Teens may also incorrectly believe that prescription drugs are safer and less addictive than illegal drugs because if their parents take it, and a doctor prescribes it, it must be OK. Both parents and teens need to be educated about the serious health risks of prescription drug abuse. This conversation should probably begin by middle school, at the latest,” advises Dr. Planta. •

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