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Updated 10:00 AM April 14, 2008




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Stress may lead students to stimulants
Academic crunch-time can cause young adults to misuse some drugs
Watch it: Stress-induced use of stimulants and energy drinks can lead to serious medical issues >

Hear it: Adolescent medicine specialist Dr. Jennifer Christner discusses stimulant abuse in high school and college students >

The performance pressures from end-of-semester exams and papers can take a toll on students, even leading them to turn to potentially harmful substances to keep them awake and alert.

Recent studies show that a growing number of high school and college students are turning to stimulants like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) drugs and energy drinks to help them through their stress — particularly during exam time, says Dr. Jennifer Christner, an adolescent medicine specialist at the U-M Health System.

"Studies have shown that anywhere from 5 to 35 percent of college students are misusing stimulants around stressful times with academics. There is also some evidence that high school students — anywhere from 8 to 10 percent — can misuse stimulants during these times," she says.

Approximately 25 percent of students in grade school and high school have been approached by friends seeking to use their medications, Christner says. This causes children to be more susceptible to misusing medications that are not prescribed to them, a decision that can be damaging to their health.

"It is never a good idea to use anyone else's medication, whether it is a prescribed medication or over-the-counter," she says. "Of course, if you have ADHD, then use your stimulant on a regular basis and not just when you really need it at crunch-time."

Misuse of stimulants can lead to depression, irritability, stomachaches and headaches. Serious misuse or abuse of these drugs can lead to serious side effects, including hypertension and stroke.

The growing popularity of energy drinks also can be harmful to a child's health, Christner says.

"There is harm when someone is taking more than one or two of these drinks a day," she says. "The caffeine can lead to jitteriness, anxiety, increased heart rate and the more serious side effects of high blood pressure, hyperthermia and stroke."

While Christner says consuming one energy drink during a demanding time usually is acceptable, there are ways a person can maintain energy levels and avoid stimulants altogether. To help ease academic anxiety, she recommends students steadily do their work, as opposed to saving it all for the last minute. She also suggests keeping up with regular exercise, eating a balanced diet and getting proper rest.

Concerned parents can take steps toward preventing their children from overusing stimulants, Christner says. Parents can role-play with their children and ask them what they would say and do if they were offered medications from their friends. Parents also can be conscientious during the time of their college-aged children's exams by calling and asking if their son or daughter is doing OK.

Christner also advises family members to look out depression, irritability and other warning signs of stimulant abuse.

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