A NEW STUDY IS SOUNDING the alarm about misuse of medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
There were 156,365 calls to poison control centers for people under 20 who were improperly exposed to ADHD medication from 2000 through 2014, according to the study published in the journal Pediatrics. The number of calls surged between 2000 and 2011 before declining slightly between 2011 and 2014.
Overall, call volume increased by 60 percent over the period, says the study's senior author, Gary Smith.
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"As the diagnoses and treatment with medication of ADHD have increased in the U.S., these exposures have also increased, which means we really do need to pay more attention … and for different age groups, come up with different strategies to prevent them," says Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
As of 2016, an estimated 6.1 million children between the ages of 2 and 17 had at some point been diagnosed with ADHD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and survey data. About 6 in 10 currently with ADHD took medication to treat the neurobehavioral disorder, which can make it extremely difficult for children to focus or sit still.
Between 2003 and 2011, the estimate of children and adolescents diagnosed at some point with ADHD rose from 4.4 million to 6.4 million, though those figures are based on a differently administered survey and represent a smaller age range of 4 to 17.
Brand-name medications for ADHD include Adderall, Concerta and Ritalin. According to the study, most of the more than 156,000 poison-control calls were for those who experienced unintentional exposure to such drugs – a category including young children who accessed poorly stored medications and those a bit older who may have taken too much or the wrong medication. Three-quarters of the calls involved children 12 years old or younger, and most didn't result in a trip to a health care facility.
But among teenagers, nearly a quarter of calls were for those intentionally abusing or misusing the pills, the study showed. Almost another quarter – nearly 9,000 calls – were related to those between 13 and 19 years old who may have been attempting suicide, which Smith says is "very concerning."
"They're taking bigger doses, it's resulting in more serious outcomes and it's not infrequent," he says. "Looking into the motivations behind these attempted suicides would be absolutely critical."
While the study only reported three deaths, all were tied to intentional exposure among teens, including one suspected suicide. Smith says it's unclear why so many teenagers abused or misused the medication, or whether the pills they took were prescribed to them or not.
To prevent improper exposure to ADHD medication, parents and teenagers should be educated on the dangers of misuse, the report said. Other strategies include storing medication safely, packaging pills by dosage and considering the combination of medication and behavioral therapy for treating ADHD.
"When you have these kinds of medications in the home that can cause serious side effects, they need to be kept in their containers with a child-resistant closure so that they don't get into them," Smith says.