Teenagers are increasingly abusing licit pharmaceuticals including painkillers, new research shows – and opioids aren’t the only drugs they’re misusing.
Associate Professor of the National Drug Institute Nicole Lee analysed data from the 2013 National Drugs Household Survey and other sources and discovered that the number of teenagers abusing medicines doubled between 2010 and 2013.
And A/Prof Lee says that paracetamol and ibuprofen are among the most commonly misused drugs, which means pharmacists could have a role in educating young people about the risks these medicines carry.
“A range of pharmaceuticals are being misused,” she told the AJP.
“Most people misusing these medicines are using painkillers/analgesics. Among young people 14-19 most are using over the counter painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen, and paracetamol or ibuprofen combined with codeine.”
She says the data suggests OTC paracetamol is being used by around 36% of the young people reporting pharmaceutical misuse, while 41% had used codeine combination medicines.
“These are medicines that can be bought in a supermarket in some cases (paracetamol and ibuprofen) or over the counter at a pharmacist (codeine combinations).
“In many cases they will be medicines in the household cabinet,” A/Prof Lee says.
“So while it is important for pharmacists offer advice to patients and also restrict sale of some S3 medicines if they think it is appropriate (for example under 16 year olds would likely need parental consent), there are many other places kids can get hold of these medicines so a community education approach is also important—which may be part of the pharmacists role.”
A big part of the problem, she says, is a perception that easily accessed medicines such as paracetamol must be safe, or they would be more difficult to obtain.
“Many people believe that because these medicines are given to you by a doctor or pharmacist they must be safe but they can cause some severe health issues,” A/Prof Lee says.
“Educating kids about safe use of medicines early (even before school age) is really important.”
A/Prof Lee also told Radio Adelaide that teenagers and people in their 20s are also increasingly misusing prescription drugs such as fentanyl, oxycodone or benzodiazepines, while at the same time their consumption of alcohol and illicit drugs is dropping.
Australia does not have the same scale of problem as the United States, however, she says.
She told the AJP that there is some merit in a real-time prescription monitoring system such as that repeatedly called for by the Pharmacy Guild and other stakeholder groups, but warned that it would not be a complete solution in itself.
“There is some merit in real time monitoring in terms of giving doctors and pharmacists more information to safely prescribe and dispense prescription medicines,” she says.
“It may not be the whole solution—we actually don’t have great data on how many people ‘medication shop’ at different pharmacists and doctors, or how many doctors are prescribing large amounts of these drugs to individuals so it’s hard to identify the size of the problem that real time monitoring will address.
“Other solutions might be community education about safe use of medicines and harm reduction strategies.”