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Abuse of ADHD Drugs on the Rise

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

As the number of prescriptions for treating attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) continues to rise, so do the numbers of children abusing those drugs.  New research published in the September 2009 issue of Pediatrics found the rate of ADHD medication abuse rose 76 percent from 1998 to 2005. At the same time, the rates for these prescriptions 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, study author and an emergency physician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio.

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.

In the study, researchers 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.

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