Teenagers who misuse prescription drugs are more likely to practice risky sexual behaviors than teens who do not abuse such medications, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Published online in the Dec. 14 journal Pediatrics, the research found that one in five high school students reported engaging in non-medical use of prescription drugs (NMUPD).
“This behavior is very concerning as overdoses and deaths related to non-medical use of prescription drugs are on the rise,” lead author Heather Clayton, PhD, a health scientist in the CDC’s division of adolescent and school health, told HealthDay. Deaths from prescription painkillers have quadrupled since 1999, noted Clayton, with more than 16,000 deaths from misuse of prescription painkillers in the U.S. in 2013.
For the study, Clayton and her colleagues reviewed data from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey given to 29,008 high school students in 2011 and 2013. The study asked participants how many times they had taken prescription painkillers or ADHD medications, including OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, codeine, Adderall, Ritalin or Xanax without a prescription. Questions about risky sexual behaviors covered frequency of sexual intercourse, condom use, number of lifetime sexual partners and use of alcohol or drugs before sex.
According to an AAP news release, findings showed that 76.6 percent of teens who engaged in NMUPD had sex compared to 39.9 percent of peers who did not abuse prescription drugs. Of the sexually active prescription drug abusers, 48.2 percent did not use a condom the last time they had sex compared to 35.8 percent of their peers.
Among the teens who engaged in NMUPD, 38.2 percent had four or more lifetime sexual partners versus 10.1 percent for those who did not abuse prescription drugs. In addition, 38 percent of sexually active teens who misused prescription drugs used alcohol or drugs before their last sexual encounter, compared to 14 percent of those who did not engage in NMUPD.
NMUPD for males was linked to every sexual risk behavior in the survey, while for females it was linked to all except not using a condom. Overall, the more teens used prescription drugs recreationally, the more likely they were to engage in risky sexual behaviors.
According to Moe Gelbart, PhD, a psychologist specializing in alcohol and chemical dependency at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California, the study’s findings underscore the challenges of adolescent brain development.
The brain takes about 25 years to fully develop, Gelbart, who was not involved in the study, told HealthDay. The parts of the brain focused on sensory experiences and emotions develop first, while the frontal cortex, which controls judgment, develops last, he explained.
“In other words, we have teens who have hormones and needs for excitement and physical stimulation, but who lack the maturity and understanding of the consequences of their behaviors. When any substance is thrown into the mix, the judgment aspect of the brain is severely affected. Thus, we have adolescents engaging in very high-risk behaviors,” Gelbart said.
Health experts suggest that teens turn to prescription drugs because they are easier to obtain than street drugs. Kids can get them from friends or relatives who have been prescribed the drugs for valid medical reasons.
Scott Krakower, DO, assistant unit chief of psychiatry at the Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y., cautioned parents to make sure their children do not have access to any prescription drugs, even if it means storing them in lock boxes. And he urged parents to be vigilant about signs of drug abuse.
“If parents discover that their child is abusing prescription drugs, they should seek help immediately and should discuss this with their pediatrician or with a mental health professional,” Krakower advised.