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The findings show the need to conduct substance abuse assessments on teenagers before prescribing these drugs to them, the researchers said.
"Prescribers and parents don't realize the abuse potential," said lead researcher Carol Boyd, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing. "These drugs produce highly attractive sensations, and adolescents may start seeking the drugs after their prescriptions run out."
The three-year study of more than 2,700 middle and high school students in the Detroit area found that nearly 9 percent had, at some point, been prescribed a potentially addictive anti-anxiety medication, such as Xanax, Valium or Klonopin, or a sleep medication, such as Ambien, Lunesta or Restoril.
More than 3 percent had a current prescription, and those teens were 10 times more likely than teens who had never been given a prescription to obtain anti-anxiety or sleep drugs illegally -- often from friends or family members -- so they could experiment or get high.
Teens who had been prescribed anti-anxiety medications before the study but no longer had a prescription were 12 times more likely than those who never had a prescription to use anti-anxiety drugs illegally, the findings showed.
Students who previously had a prescription for either type of drug were only at increased risk for abuse of anti-anxiety drugs, which may provide a greater high than sleep drugs, said the authors of the study published online Nov. 24 in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.
Students most likely to abuse anti-anxiety or sleep drugs were white, female or had had a valid prescription for several years, the study authors noted in a news release from the American Psychological Association.
"This is a wake-up call to the medical community as far as the risks involved in prescribing these medications to young people," Boyd said in the news release.
"When taken as prescribed, these drugs are effective and not dangerous. The problem is when adolescents use too many of them or mix them with other substances, especially alcohol," she said.
Anti-anxiety and sleep medications can impair driving and can be deadly when mixed with alcohol and/or other drugs.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: American Psychological Association, news release, Nov. 24, 2014