HealthDay News — Non-medical prescription opiate or sedative use is responsible for about one-in-10 ED visits by young adults, researchers have found.

“These results suggest the emergency department is an ideal location for both screening and intervention given this risk factor profile and [ED]-visit characteristics associated with both non-prescription opioid use and non-prescription sedative use,” Lauren K. Whiteside, MD, from the University of Washington in Seattle, and colleagues reported in Pediatrics.

Prescription drug abuse has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, accounting for approximately 1 million ED visits for related overdose, abuse and misuse in 2008, according to the CDC.

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To better understand the prevalence and characteristics of ED visits due to nonmedical prescription drug use in adolescents and young adults, the researchers examined information from 2,135 patients aged 14- to 20-years old, who presented to the emergency department between September 2010 and September 2011.

Data were obtained from retrospective chart reviews and a computerized, self-report screening survey with validated items measuring past-year non-medical prescription opiate, non-medical prescription sedative use, substance use and violence.

The researchers found that 222 participants (10.4%) reported either non-medical prescription opiate or sedative use. Among the 185 partipants who reported opiate use (8.7%) and the 115 who reported sedative use (5.4%), 14.6% and 12.3%, respectively, had a current home prescription for an opioid and for a sedative.

After adjusting for demographic characteristics including age, gender and race, several factors were independently associated with non-medical prescription opiate or sedative use, including other substance use, drinking and driving and riding with a drinking driver.

Additionally, young people using the ED had increased odds of non-medical prescription opiate use if they received an intravenous opioid during their visit, or engaged in past-year substance abuse. Those who reported non-medical prescription sedative use were more likely to have a history of dating violence and substance use.

“Future directions include developing screening and intervention protocols to assist in identifying ED patients at risk for nonmedical use of prescription drugs regardless of their reason for ED presentation,” the researchers found.


  1. Whiteside LK et al. Pediatrics. 2013; doi:10.1542/peds.2013-0721.