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Medication misuse: A growing problem

Staff Sgt.  Adam Keegan, 39th Medical Group pharmacy technician, refills a prescription May 5, 2014, Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.  Airmen who take prescription pills that are not their own or are taken after the time allotted could find themselves facing severe disciplinary actions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nicole Sikorski/Released)

Staff Sgt. Adam Keegan, 39th Medical Group pharmacy technician, refills a prescription May 5, 2014, Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. Airmen who take prescription pills that are not their own or are taken after the time allotted could find themselves facing severe disciplinary actions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nicole Sikorski/Released)

Staff Sgt.  Adam Keegan, 39th Medical Group pharmacy technician, and Capt. Christine Cox, 39th MDG chief pharmacist, attend to patients receiving medications from the 39th MDG pharmacy May 5, 2014, Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.  Base pharmacies have a disposal drop box for year round deposit of unwanted medications. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nicole Sikorski/Released)

Staff Sgt. Adam Keegan, 39th Medical Group pharmacy technician, and Capt. Christine Cox, 39th MDG chief pharmacist, attend to patients receiving medications from the 39th MDG pharmacy May 5, 2014, Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. Base pharmacies have a disposal drop box for year round deposit of unwanted medications. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nicole Sikorski/Released)

Staff Sgt.  Adam Keegan, 39th Medical Group pharmacy technician, ensures the correct number of prescribed pills are dispensed May 5, 2014, Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.  The 39th MDG pharmacy counts each pill they dispense to their patients. An estimated 2.4 million Americans used prescription drugs nonmedically for the first time in the past year. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nicole Sikorski/Released)

Staff Sgt. Adam Keegan, 39th Medical Group pharmacy technician, ensures the correct number of prescribed pills are dispensed May 5, 2014, Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. The 39th MDG pharmacy counts each pill they dispense to their patients. An estimated 2.4 million Americans used prescription drugs nonmedically for the first time in the past year. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nicole Sikorski/Released)

Staff Sgt.  Adam Keegan, 39th Medical Group pharmacy technician, checks in a patient May 5, 2014, Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.  Controlling medications that are dispensed to patients is a top priority at the 39th MDG pharmacy. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nicole Sikorski/Released)

Staff Sgt. Adam Keegan, 39th Medical Group pharmacy technician, checks in a patient May 5, 2014, Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. Controlling medications that are dispensed to patients is a top priority at the 39th MDG pharmacy. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nicole Sikorski/Released)

Prescription pain pills are seen dumped out on a table at Grissom Air Reserve Base, Ind. Airmen who take prescription pills that are not their own or are taken after the time allotted could find themselves facing severe discipline. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Tech. Sgt. Mark R. W. Orders-Woempner)

Prescription pain pills are seen dumped out on a table at Grissom Air Reserve Base, Ind. Airmen who take prescription pills that are not their own or are taken after the time allotted could find themselves facing severe discipline. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Tech. Sgt. Mark R. W. Orders-Woempner)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- 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."