Youngsters risk addiction by self-medicating with over-the-counter drugs

Study into misuse of readily available drugs finds more than half of young people quizzed were already self-medicating with painkillers.

Over-the-counter painkillers are useful, as long as you do not use them the wrong way, experts say. Joe Raedle / Getty Images
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ABU DHABI // More than half of young people questioned in a study into the use of over-the-counter drugs were self-medicating with painkillers, a practice that could lead to problems, experts warned.

Researchers from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology studied 6,363 people aged 13 to 20 in the UAE to determine the profile of over-the-counter medication use, with painkiller acetaminophen – also known as paracetamol – the most commonly used drug.

Although the availability of over-the-counter drugs has benefits, such as encouraging people to take responsibility for their health, doctors said young people may be unaware of the risks related to self-medicating.

The trend could also be a factor in the overuse of antibiotics and the rise of drug-resistant bacteria. The overuse of shop-bought drugs could point to another problem.

“Our results suggest adolescents who responded positively to the use of unconventional drugs, such as sniffing gas or glue, are also more likely to use over-the-counter drugs than adolescents who do not,” said Caroline Barakat-Haddad, assistant professor at the university’s faculty of health sciences and lead author of the study.

“It may be that adolescents who use unconventional drugs are also prone to the use of certain over-the-counter drugs to get high. In this case, it may be a ‘silent addiction’.

“With harsh judicial penalties for illegal drug use, there remains the possibility of shop-bought drugs abuse by adolescents in the UAE.”

High healthcare and medicine costs in the UAE could also be a reason people buy drugs without a prescription, especially for those without insurance, Dr Barakat-Haddad said.

The most common shop-bought drugs used by those asked were acetaminophen, ­analgesics, or pain relievers in the form of non-steroidal ­anti-inflammatory drugs.

Researchers collected demographic, socioeconomic, residential and behavioural data for the cross-sectional study of young people across the UAE, of which 51 per cent had used shop-bought drugs.

"Popping pills? Over-the-counter medication use among adolescents: A case study from the United Arab Emirates", was published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine, Trauma and Acute Care.

Physiological side effects of misusing legal drugs can be gastrointestinal bleeding, kidney failure or, in some cases, addiction. Other risks include misdiagnosis, possible delay in receiving therapy and increased resistance to antimicrobial agents as a result of inappropriate drug use.

“The high prevalence of self medicating among this population is worrying and highlights the need for several public health strategies,” said Dr Barakat-Haddad.

“Given the increased likelihood of non-prescription drug use during adolescence, the implementation of educational programmes and preventive interventions during this time of life is critical.”

Although very rare, Reye’s syndrome is a serious condition linked to aspirin use in young children who are recovering from a viral infection. If left untreated, it can result in liver failure and brain damage.

“Self-medicating can be a good thing if someone has a mild, common illness,” said Dr Katherine Morris, a family medicine consultant at King’s College Hospital London Medical & Surgical Centre, Abu Dhabi. “It is good for them to take responsibility for their health, as long as they understand what they are taking, how to take it and what the side effects may be.”

The risk for younger children is greater because it can be more difficult to get the dosage right. Aspirin, for example, is not suitable for younger children and can be dangerous.

In 2006, a report published by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information found that 3.1 million people in the United States aged 12 to 25 used OTC cough and cold medication to get high.

Safe drug use also depends on what other medication the person may be taking, and the duration of use.

“Addiction risk is minimal to over-the-counter drugs,” Dr Morris said. “There’s more risk when young people do not follow the right dosing.

“Paracetamol has minimal side effects as long as people stick to the dosing advice.”