A new study has shown that between 2000 and 2014, there was a 64% increase in the number of children and teenagers in the US being exposed to ADHD medication. This included both unintentional and intentional exposure in the forum of ingestion, inhalation or absorption. Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy of the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital who led the study said: “What we found is that, overall, during that 15 years, there was about a 60% increase in the number of individuals exposed and calls reported to poison control centers regarding these medications.”

The researchers only took into account the four most common treatments that are used to treat ADHD:  methylphenidate, amphetamine, atomoxetine and modafinil. Overall, around 46% of all the exposures were found to be due to methylphenidate, which includes drugs like Ritalin; another 45% were due to amphetamine, for example Adderall. Overexposure to these stimulants can cause dangerous side effects like increased heart rate, confusion, tremors and seizures.

There were an estimated 156,000 calls to poison control centres in the US in the 14 year period. Around a fifth of these were due to intentional exposure; the rest were caused by unintentionally being exposed to the drugs. Even more worryingly, of the calls that were made, around 10% resulted in serious side effects, and in a small number of  cases death. “The finding that was most surprising was the proportion, and the severity, of the exposures among the adolescents that were due to intentional exposure. We had three deaths, and all three were in the teenage group,” Smith noted.

The researchers also pointed out that, probably due to regulation changes including FDA warnings, the number of incidents has fallen in recent years. Between the year 2000 and the year 2011, there was a staggering 71% increase in the number of cases of exposure to ADHD drugs. Between 2011 and 2014, the increase fell to 6.2%. Smith said: “During the early 2000s, there were a number of FDA warnings that came out” describing the potential adverse effects of these medications.”

However, despite these alarming figures, medical professionals insist that these drugs are essential for treating young people ADHD. It’s one of the most common behavioural disorders in children and adolescents, and according to a recent study, around 80% who are taking medications see significant improvements in their symptoms and behaviour.

Smith added that, considering that the number of diagnoses in US children has doubled between 2005 and 2014, the increase in exposure “probably follows the increase in diagnoses”. He added: “The increase in exposures “probably follows the increase in diagnoses. We know that these medications are highly effective in the treatment of ADHD. And as the number of diagnoses goes up, so follows the number of prescriptions.”

Dr. Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness at Johns Hopkins, who was not involved in the research said: “Unfortunately, just as with opioids, these medicines are far too accessible in bathrooms and bedrooms and kitchen cabinets all over the country. There are increasing numbers of pharmacies and hospitals and health systems that are building take-back programs for individuals seeking to dispose of these medicines. So I think we’ll see more of these in the coming years.”

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