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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - One in eight older U.S. teenagers has used powerful painkiller drugs without prescriptions, and many of them start misusing the pills at age 16 or 17, earlier than was previously assumed, according to new research released on Monday.
The findings published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine are based on two national surveys that asked teenagers about their recent or lifetime use of prescription painkillers, which include highly addictive drugs such as oxycontin and codeine.
For the full study, see: bit.ly/pD1ZHL
Both medical and recreational use of such opioid drugs has increased across the United States over the last two decades, as have deaths due to painkiller overdoses. The new findings suggest that educational programs on the dangers of misusing painkillers should start earlier in high school, researchers said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 14,800 Americans died of an opioid overdose in 2008 - three times the number of such deaths 20 years earlier.
"The non-medical use of controlled medications in (teens) has surpassed almost all illicit drugs except for marijuana," said pediatrician Dr. Robert Fortuna, from the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. "It's just an alarming trend."
Fortuna, who was not involved in the new research, told Reuters Health that more doctors are prescribing powerful painkillers to youths for conditions like back or knee pain. Some of these drugs may end up getting abused.
That doesn't mean prescribing oxycontin or related drugs is a bad idea to young people who properly need them, researchers agreed.
"The majority of these kids are still using these medications as intended," said Sean Esteban McCabe, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who led one of the new studies.
McCabe and his colleagues analyzed teenagers' drug-related responses on a general survey of behaviors and attitudes that given to about 7,400 high school seniors in 2007 through 2009.
Of those teens - senior-year students from 135 different public and private schools - about 13 percent said they had used prescription painkillers for non-medical reasons, such as to get high or to relieve pain without a doctor's oversight.
Teens who said they had used the painkillers for non-medical purposes were more likely to smoke pot or cigarettes or to binge drink, compared with those who had only taken the pills under a doctor's supervision or not at all.
Most of the kids who misused the drugs had previously been prescribed them for a medical condition. Teens may be using their own leftover medication for pain or to get high, or may get painkillers from family members or friends who were prescribed the drugs, researchers said.
Other survey data on 12- to 21-year olds revealed that most teens who took up the habit started using painkillers at age 16 or 17 - not at the end of high school or afterwards, as some research had suggested.
At age 16, one in 30 or 40 teens took their first painkillers for non-medical use, James Anthony of Michigan State University in East Lansing and his colleagues reported in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine on Monday, alongside McCabe's findings.
The findings suggest that programs aimed at keeping kids away from painkillers should start early in high school, and not just aim at older teens or high school grads, Anthony said.
"Perhaps we've been thinking about this as an older adolescent phenomenon, or a problem that's more common among college students or high school seniors," he told Reuters Health.
The researchers said that to avoid abuse, doctors can warn younger patients about the potential problem with painkillers, and parents can make sure the drugs are properly stored and disposed of.
Editing by Christine Soares, Michele Gershberg and Philip Barbara