According to recent research, the rates of overdose and death relating to non-medical use of prescription drugs, especially painkiller medications, are rising in the United States. “Prescription drug use for non-medical purposes has reached epidemic proportions,” says Heather B. Clayton, PhD, MPH. “Previous studies have shown that substance use is associated with risky sexual behaviors, but little is known if non-medical prescription drug use is associated with sexual risk behaviors among youths.”

To examine this relationship more closely, Dr. Clayton and colleagues had a study published in Pediatrics. Using data from the 2011 and 2013 national Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, the analysis involved more than 29,000 high school students who were surveyed about risky behaviors. Respondents were asked about use of a variety of prescription drugs that might be used recreationally, such as painkillers, sedatives, and stimulants. It also queried these adolescents if they ever had sexual intercourse, are currently sexual active, their lifetime number of sexual partners, if they used condoms during last sexual intercourse, and if they used alcohol or drugs before their last sexual intercourse.


Alarming Findings

“Our study found that about one in five high school students used prescription drugs for non-medical use,” says Dr. Clayton. Results also showed that teens who used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons were 16% more likely than those who did not use these medications to have ever had sex, 26% more likely to be currently sexually active, and 14% more likely to not have used a condom the last time they had sex. In addition, high school students who used prescription medications for non-medical reasons were 32% more likely to have used drugs or alcohol before they had sex and 45% more likely to have at least four previous sexual partners.

The analysis also revealed that as the frequency of non-medical use of prescription drugs increased, so too did the strength of the association between drug use and sexual risk behaviors, suggesting a dose–response relationship. The more teens used prescription drugs recreationally, the more likely they were to engage in all of the assessed risky behaviors. “The link between recreational use of prescription drugs and risky sexual behaviors remained even after adjusting data to account for other factors, such as the use of illicit drugs and alcohol,” Dr. Clayton says.


Considerable Implications

The non-medical use of prescription drugs is associated with sexual behaviors that put high school students at risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), according to Dr. Clayton. “Findings from our study can be used to inform and develop clinical and school-based interventions to reduce drug use and STIs,” she says.

The study notes that there are many reasons why teens may choose to abuse prescription drugs. For example, these medications are often easier to access and cheaper than other recreational drugs. “Physicians should realize that they can be part of the solution to this problem,” Dr. Clayton says. “Clinicians need to be judicious and cautious when they provide prescription medications and consider the potential risks.” The study authors recommend educating parents to reduce access to these medications and to seek help immediately from healthcare professionals if they suspect their children are abusing these drugs.