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Updated 7:00 AM November 23, 2009

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Teen sexual activity, gambling linked to nonprescribed
medications use

Taking nonprescribed medication has become an emerging problem, especially among teens. When using these substances to get high, students were more likely to engage in bad behaviors than other youths, a new U-M study shows.

Kids between the ages of 12 to 17 who used nonprescribed medications to get high or as an alternative to street drugs — described as sensation seekers — were likely to binge drink, gamble and become sexually active.

"Nonmedical use of prescription medication represents an unacceptable health risk," says Carol Boyd, director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG) and a nurse researcher specializing in substance abuse issues.

In the first study of its kind, researchers examined 7th- through 12th-grade adolescent nonmedical use of prescription medications and its relationship to other problem behaviors, depression and acting impulsively.

The analysis included data from 912 teens divided in four groups: those who did not use prescription medications; used their own prescribed medications; engaged in nonmedical use for self-treatment motivations; and engaged in nonmedical use for sensation-seeking motivations.

Students were asked about their motives and frequency in using drugs — such as sleeping, sedative, stimulant and pain medication — not prescribed to them.

Respondents were characterized as self-treaters if they reported past year nonmedical use for therapeutic reasons only. Sensation seekers used the medications to get high, experiment or as an alternative to street drugs.

More than one-third of the sample — or 37 percent — reported having a legal prescription for at least one of the four drug classes within the previous year. However, 546 students (60 percent) reported "no annual use" of prescription medications. Girls were more likely than boys to be medical users (32.8 percent vs. 25.3 percent) and self-treaters (10.7 percent vs. 4.4 percent) although there was no statistical difference between boys and girls relative to sensation-seeking.

Nearly 8 percent (71 students) indicated nonmedical use for self-treatment purposes in the past year, while 3 percent (28 students) used for sensation-seeking. Pain medication was the most frequently reported controlled medication used, both medically and nonmedically and this corresponds with other national studies.

Health providers should communicate their teen patients about the health and safety risks with giving medications to others or using nonprescribed medicines. In addition, health providers should alert parents about the importance of controlling and counting their children's pills, Boyd says.

"Most certainly, parents should restrict availability and not leave medicines on countertops or in unlocked medicine cabinets," she says. "Parents must role model safe behaviors when it comes to prescribed medicines: do not share among family members, and talk to children about the importance of taking medicines only as prescribed."

Boyd collaborated on the study with Amy Young, assistant research scientist at IRWG; doctoral candidate Melissa Grey; and Sean McCabe, research associate professor, Substance Abuse Research Center and IRWG.

The National Institutes of Health-funded study "Adolescents' Nonmedical Use of Prescription Medications and Other Problem Behaviors" will appear in the December issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health. The issue currently is online.

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