Drug Misuse in Adolescents Presenting to the Emergency Department

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Abstract

Objectives

Drug misuse is a disturbing, common practice among youth. One in 4 American adolescents reports consuming prescription medications without a clinical indication. We sought to explore current trends of drug misuse in adolescents.

Methods

Using the 37 participating sites of the ToxIC (Toxicology Investigators Consortium) Case Registry, a cross-country surveillance tool, we conducted an observational cohort study of all adolescents (aged 13–18 years) who presented to emergency departments with drug misuse and required a bedside medical toxicology consultation between January 2010 and June 2013.

Results

Of 3043 poisonings, 202 (7%) involved drug misuse (139 [69%] were males). Illicit drugs (primarily synthetic cannabinoids and “bath salts”) were encountered in 101 (50%), followed by prescription medications (56 [28%]) and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs (51 [25%]). Dextromethorphan was the most commonly misused legal medication (24 [12%]). Polypharmacy exposure was documented in 74 (37%). One hundred sixty-three adolescents (81%) were symptomatic; of these, 81% had central nervous system impairments: psychosis (38%), agitation (30%), coma (26%), myoclonus (11%), and seizures (10%); and 66 (41%) displayed a specific toxidrome, most commonly sedative-hypnotic. Benzodiazepines were the most frequently administered medications (46%). Antidotes were administered to 28% of adolescents, primarily naloxone, physostigmine, N-acetyl-cysteine, and flumazenil. No deaths were recorded.

Conclusions

Adolescents presenting with drug misuse may be exposed to a wide range and combinations of therapeutics or illicit substances and frequently display central nervous system abnormalities, compromising the ability to obtain a reliable history. Frontline clinicians should maintain a high index of suspicion, as routine toxicology screenings fail to detect most contemporary misused legal and designer drugs.

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