Nonmedical use of prescription drugs among young people: A growing global concern

A new article shows increased rates of deaths worldwide from prescription opioids as high as 550 percent depending on country and time-period. 

A recent review of research published in the journal “World Psychiatry” highlights that prescription drug abuse is already a worrisome trend in a number of middle-income or developed countries; particularly among young people.

While each study included in the review uses slightly different methodologies for each country, they all underscore that populations outside the United States are at major risk of surging painkiller abuse.

The data has been taken from many school and college-aged youth from Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. For the US, the data has been based on the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The data overall shows that non-medical use of prescription medicine has risen.

“Data on high school or university students from the Middle East or Arab world indicate that nonmedical use of prescription drugs warrants closer attention,” said lead author Silvia Martins, MD, associate professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

“In Beirut, Lebanon, past-year nonmedical use of any prescription drugs was 21.6% among private university students and 10% among high school students. In both populations, prescription opioids were the drugs most commonly used nonmedically. In Saudi Arabia, a recent school-based survey showed a lifetime prevalence of 7.2% for the nonmedical use of any prescription drug.”

Nonmedical use of prescription stimulants can cause respiratory suppression and overdose, or lead to irregular heart rate, hypertension, cardiovascular system failure, stroke, and seizures. Nonmedical use of both prescription opioids and stimulants among adolescents and young adults have also been linked to increased harmful use of other substances, psychiatric symptoms, psychiatric disorders, and ideas of suicide.

Dr. Martins suggests the following measures be taken to help ensure that these prescription drugs are available to those who need it while strictly avoiding diversion for nonmedical purposes:

1. Inform the general public, including parents and youth, about the negative consequences of sharing prescription medications.

2. Train medical practitioners to better recognize patients at potential risk of developing nonmedical use.

3. Consider potential alternative treatments and improve monitoring the medications medical professionals dispense.

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