Medication misuse: A growing problem

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane
  • U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa Public Affairs
An estimated 2.4 million Americans used prescription drugs nonmedically for the first time in the past year. That equates to more than 6,550 new cases of improper use each day.

Air Force members contribute to this statistic, too.

Prescription medication use falls into three main categories: correct use, misuse and abuse. Most Airmen fall into the first category and use their prescribed medication for the intended purpose and duration.

"In general, people start out taking their medications correctly," said Lt. Col. V. Christina Fairley, 86th Medical Support Squadron diagnostic and therapeutic flight commander. "Along the way, they become lost."

Misuse is when a person uses medication for any reason other than the prescribed use. This can include using medication outside of the timeframe designated by a medical professional or using medication not prescribed to you.

A common scenario that servicemembers run into is when they are prescribed a pain medication for a legitimate reason, but end up with leftover medication. Rather than disposing of the medication at an approved facility, they keep it in their medicine cabinet.

A few months later, they develop a pain caused by work, PT or a minor injury. Rather than going back to the doctor for a prescription specifically for the new injury, they self-medicate with their prior prescription. If these drugs are found in their system during a drug test, they can be held accountable administratively.

"Some types of medications are highly addictive," said Fairley. "People start thinking 'One works great, so two will work better'. Soon, they are taking medication incorrectly, increasing dosage, quantity and duration. Once the ball starts rolling down hill, it is hard to stop."

According to Fairley, some of the most commonly abused drugs in the Air Force are those from the opioid family: Vicodin and Oxycontin. There is also an increase in the use of stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall.

Taking these medications when prescribed by a licensed professional can decrease pain after a surgery or help with recovery from an injury. However, if they are misused or abused, the individual misusing them may be subject to non-judicial punishment. Punishments can include the loss of pay or rank, base restriction, and a reprimand.

"Wrongful use of prescription drugs can end your career," said Capt. Jazmine Russell, 86th Airlift Wing military justice chief. "It may qualify as drug abuse for discharge purposes. If a case is considered a drug abuse case, the Air Force instruction requires a mandatory discharge, with a few exceptions."

According to the Federal Drug Administration, if your prescription has expired and you still have medication, do not throw it away or flush it down the drain. Base pharmacies have a disposal drop box for year round deposit of unwanted medications. These pharmacies also participate in National Drug Take Back Day, where people are encouraged to bring their expired medication to dispose of correctly.

The drug take back event held April 26 at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, collected 24 pounds of unused prescription medication.

"Education is paramount," Fairley said. "Individuals need to understand the potential harm that comes from misusing a medication."