New Sign of Stimulants’ Toll on Young

The New York Times, August 8, 2013

WASHINGTON — The number of young adults who end up in the emergency room after taking Adderall, Ritalin or other such stimulants has quadrupled in recent years, federal health officials said Thursday, fresh evidence of the unexpected consequences that can result from the wide use of medicines for conditions like attention deficit disorder.

The number of emergency room visits related to stimulants among people ages 18 to 34 increased to 23,000 in 2011, from 5,600 in 2005, according to national data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services. Peter J. Delany, the director of the office that oversees statistics for the administration, said the rise was particularly pronounced among 18- to 25-year-olds. He said it was part of a broader pattern of negative health effects from prescription drug abuse across American society.

Scientists have not firmly established the reasons for the rise, but Dr. Delany said one clue was the way that people who misused prescription drugs obtained them: in 2011, more than half got them at no charge from a friend or a relative, and 17 percent bought them from a friend or a relative. That suggests that a large share of the misuse is of medicines not prescribed by the abuser’s doctor.

“We have a huge issue of easy access,” said Dr. Elinore F. McCance-Katz, the chief medical officer of the substance abuse administration, adding that it applies to stimulants as well as to opioids, another category of widely abused prescription drugs.

The report focused on emergency room visits that were the result of abuse or misuse of the stimulants, like taking larger-than-prescribed doses or taking stimulants in combination with alcohol.

Misuse of these drugs has been linked to heart and blood vessel problems, as well as to drug abuse or dependence. When combined with alcohol, the stimulants can hide the effects of being drunk, which increases the risk of alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related injuries. About a third of all emergency room visits related to the stimulants among people ages 18 to 34 involve alcohol, the report said.

The stimulants measured in the report include prescription drugs, like those used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and to prevent sleepiness, as well as over-the-counter products that contain caffeine, like caffeine pills and caffeinated energy drinks. Illegal stimulants like methamphetamine, also the subject of a growing abuse problem, were not included in the report.

The use of caffeinated energy drinks did not play a major role in the increase in emergency room visits, the report said.