Kids Are Taking Fewer Antibiotics, But More ADHD & Asthma Meds, & Here's Why

by Josie Rhodes Cook

Compared to past years, kids and adolescents are taking fewer antibiotics, according to a new study. But they are taking more of certain kinds of medications, such as treatments for asthma, contraception, and medication for attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The study — which focused on prescription drug use from 1999 to 2002, and medications prescribed in 2011 through 2014 — found that, in general, the proportion of children and teens receiving prescriptions for medication dropped from around 25 percent to 22 percent, NPR reported. And the lead author of the study says the decrease is a good thing.

The study is based on information from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study, which included more than 38,000 children and adolescents, and the study on medication prescribed to children was published Tuesday in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article reported that kids' and adolescents' "use of medications for asthma, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and contraception increased, whereas use of antibiotics, antihistamines, and upper respiratory combination medications decreased."

In at least one case, the shift might be the result of improved treatment for conditions that could potentially involve antibiotics, according to HealthDay. Dr. Gary Freed, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, wrote in an editorial that antibiotics prescriptions fell by close to one-half, and that "the trend in antibiotic prescriptions is probably a good thing" as it probably means less inappropriate antibiotic use.

Lead study researcher Dr. Craig Hales, a medical epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agreed that the drop in antibiotic prescriptions had to do with prescribing the drugs appropriately. He told HealthDay there was "a campaign to reduce inappropriate use."

Overuse Versus Underuse Of Prescriptions

But some of the other findings are a little more difficult to interpret. The survey noted a significant gap in prescription use among kids and adolescents who were insured versus those who weren't. Around 23 percent of insured youth had recently taken prescription medication, compared with 10 percent of those who were uninsured.

Freed told NPR the gap could be a sign of overuse of prescriptions among the insured versus underuse in the uninsured, though the article didn't elaborate whether he meant that doctors were writing too many prescriptions for insured children, or if kids with insurance are taking more of the drugs they're prescribed than they should be. Freed told NPR:

It's also possible that some children who really need medications, if they're uninsured, don't get them.

Antibiotics & Antihistamines

The JAMA article reported that antibiotic use in children and adolescents decreased from 8.4 percent to 4.5 percent from 1999-2002 to 2011-2014, likely because public health agencies worked to decrease the overuse of antibiotics and educate the public.

Kids' use of antihistamines across all ages also decreased, from 4.3 percent to 2 percent, JAMA reported. But it might be because many of those medications were only available by prescription in 1999, and were approved for over-the-counter use in the 15-year span the study scrutinized.

The overall use of prescription drugs in children and teenagers sits at 22 percent in a typical 30-day period, according to NPR. And Freed says while that might sound high, it could be due to all sorts of factors. For instance, a lot of kids are alive thanks to advances in medical treatment, and that's obviously a good thing. Freed told NPR:

The danger is thinking 'oh my goodness that's so many kids getting medications.' But at the same time, before we make that conclusion we have to know whether those were appropriate or not appropriate.

Increased Use Of ADHD Medication

By 2014, more kids aged 6 to 11 had prescriptions for ADHD meds compared to 12 to 15 years earlier, according to U.S. News & World Report. Prescriptions for amphetamines like Adderall almost doubled, and Freed said that might be because we are just better at diagnosing ADHD and treating it appropriately now than in years past.

As for the rise in the use of contraceptives, just under 9 percent of teenage girls had a prescription in more recent years, compared to less than 5 percent in 1999-2002, HealthDay reported.

Hales told NPR that he hopes the findings can lead to further research on the topic. More directed research, not to mention the funding for it, will be necessary to explore some of the more specific details, like when treatment is truly necessary and appropriate — like for ADHD management.