Opiates and Sedatives Weren't What the Doctor Ordered

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Opiate and sedative use without prescription not uncommon among teens

October 27, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

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(dailyRx News) Illegal drug use can be one concern to watch out for among teens and young adults. But so can misuse of legal, prescription medications.

A recent study found that about one in 10 teens used opiates or prescription sedatives for non-medical reasons.

Opiates are narcotic painkillers. Both opiates and prescription sedatives can be misused for recreational purposes.

Only a small number of the teens who were using the opiates and sedatives had a prescription for them, the study found.

Teens who used them for non-medical reasons were more likely to misuse other substances as well.

"Discuss the danger of prescription medication misuse with your kids."

This study, led by Lauren K. Whiteside, MD, of the Division of Emergency Medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle, looked more closely at cases in which teens were using opiates and sedatives they had no prescription for.

The researchers gave extensive questionnaires to 2,135 participants, aged 14 to 20, who had gone to the University of Michigan Medical Center emergency room during a one-year period.

Among these participants, 10.4 percent reported that they used either prescription opiates or sedatives for non-medical purposes.

Approximately 8.7 percent reported using opiates, and 14.6 percent of this group had a current prescription for the medications.

Among the 5.4 percent who reported using sedatives, 12.3 percent of them had a current prescription for the medications.  

The researchers took into account the respondents' age, sex, race/ethnicity and receipt of public assistance before analyzing other factors that might be linked to opiate or sedative non-medical use.

Adolescents who used opiates and sedatives for non-medical reasons were also more likely to have other substance use issues, to drink and drive or to ride with a drinking driver.

Teens who had received an IV opioid while in the ER were more likely to use opiates for non-medical reasons.

Teens who had been to the ER at least one other time in the previous year, who came to the ER for a complaint without an injury or who were involved in dating violence were all more likely to use prescription sedatives for non-medical reasons.

The researchers concluded that only a small percentage of teens using opiates and sedatives have a prescription for them and that this age group could be screened for recreational opiate and sedative use at the ER.

Chris Galloway, MD, a dailyRx expert specializing in emergency medicine, said narcotic pain medications are one of the most frequently prescribed drug classes, with antidepressants and sedatives not far behind.

"When monitored, these medications can be effective and safe," he said. "The reality is that we are seeing an ever increasing number of patients using these drugs without a prescription, including teens."

It is therefore important to pay attention to whether teens might be misusing this drugs, he suggested.

"An ER visit is often an opportune time for a provider to question teens about drug use, prescription or not, and possibly intervene in the behavior," Dr. Galloway said. "Parents need to be ever vigilant about what and who their kids are involved with as more and more of these drugs are out there and available."

This study was published October 28 in the journal Pediatrics. The research was funded by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
October 27, 2013
Last Updated:
December 30, 2013