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Researcher Sean Esteban McCabe asked 3,639 college students, average age 19.9 years, about their prescribed or non-prescribed use of four classes of prescription drugs—opioids, stimulants, sleeping aids and sedative or anxiety medications.
The students were also asked about any drug-related problems (such as performing illegal activities to obtain drugs, having withdrawal symptoms, or developing medical problems) that might indicate drug abuse.
The study found that 59.9 percent of the students reported having used at least one of the four kinds of drugs with a prescription for medical reasons, and about 20 percent reported non-prescribed, non-medical use of a drug.
Overall, 1,412 (39.7 percent) said they'd used such drugs only by prescription, 156 (4.4 percent) were never prescribed any of the drugs but had used them anyway, and 563 (15.8 percent) had used some of the drugs both with and without a prescription.
Students who said they'd used medications without a prescription—whether or not they'd used them for medical reasons—were more likely to screen positive for drug abuse than those who only used the medications for medical reasons or had never used them, the study found.
There was no difference in the rate of positive screening between students who said they only used the drugs by prescription and those who said they'd never taken the medications.
The study was published in the March issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
The findings have important implications for prescribing frequently abused medications to college students, McCabe said in a prepared statement.
"Clearly, appropriate diagnosis, treatment and therapeutic monitoring of college students who are receiving abusable prescription medications is crucial, not only to improve clinical outcomes but also to help prevent the abuse of these medications within a population that is largely responsible for its own medication management," he concluded.
"Finally, any efforts at reducing non-medical use of prescription drugs will have to take into consideration that these drugs are highly effective and safe medications for most patients who use them as prescribed."
SOURCE: JAMA/Archives journals, news release, March 3, 2008
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