Abuse of prescription medications is on the rise in the U.S., and it now appears that physicians may be adding to the problem when they prescribe certain drugs to teenagers.

According to research published by the American Psychological Association (APA), teens prescribed anti-anxiety or sleep medications become much more likely to abuse those drugs in their future.

These medications can be addictive. They can be dangerous or even fatal when mixed with narcotics or alcohol.

“What happened to [actor] Heath Ledger could happen to any teen who is misusing these medications, particularly if the teen uses alcohol in combination with these drugs,” said Carol Boyd, lead researcher and professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing.

The knowledge that these are ‘prescribed medicines’ makes them seem safer.

The researchers worry that the medical community may be unintentionally creating a new generation of recreational drug users by prescribing these powerful substances to teenagers.

The study looked at the use of anti-anxiety medications like Klonopin, Xanax and Ativan; and sleep medications like Ambien, Restoril and Lunesta. These are controlled substances partly because of the potential for abuse. It is a felony to share them.

The survey of over 2,700 students from five Detroit-area schools grouped students into three categories: those never prescribed anxiety or sleep medications; those prescribed those medications within the three-year study period; and those previously prescribed those medications but not during the study period.

Nearly nine percent had been prescribed medications known to have the potential for addiction.

Students who were prescribed anti-anxiety medications before the study, but who no longer had valid prescriptions, were 12 times more likely than their peers to use someone else’s medication.

“This is a wake-up call to the medical community as far as the risks involved in prescribing these medications to young people,” commented Boyd. “When taken as prescribed, these drugs are effective and not dangerous. The problem is when adolescents use too many of them or mix them with other substances, especially alcohol.”

White students were twice as likely as African-Americans to illegally obtain additional pills from someone else. Girls and those who had valid prescriptions for several years were also more likely to abuse anti-anxiety and sleep medications.

Both parents and prescribers may not fully realize the potential long-term consequences of prescribing these medications to teenagers, the researchers warn. Unlike other drugs, teenagers are able to get these medications long after their prescriptions run out.

Given the large number of Americans who are prescribed anti-anxiety and sleep medications, teenagers often have easy access to additional pills through their friends and family members. The knowledge that these are “prescribed medicines” makes them seem safer.

Prescribers need to make sure they educate teens and their parents regarding the risks for abuse and the dangers of sharing these medications, the researchers say. It may also be useful to screen teens for substance abuse with blood tests prior to writing prescriptions. The researchers also noted the need for stricter regulations on prescription refills.

The study is published in the APA journal, Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.