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Teen Athletes & the Abuse of Over-the-Counter Drugs

From baseball stars to Olympians, media coverage of elite athletes increasingly includes reports of the use of performance-enhancing drugs to gain an edge over competitors. These substances are usually taken to boost athletic performance, increase muscle mass and strength, and diminish fatigue.

Teen athletes in high school and even middle school are taking these drugs, too. There are many reasons for this, such as frustration over being at a plateau in training or curiosity about the drugs' effects. Some young athletes also may use performance-enhancing drugs if they think that others (especially competitors) are using them - and if they believe that coaches and parents will look the other way regarding the use of such products.

Drug Types
Performance-boosting substances come in both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) versions. The following are among the most (OTC) performance-enhancing drugs.

  • Creatine - Creatine is a compound that helps muscles use energy and recover more quickly following exercise. Small amounts of the substance - which is produced by the liver and stored in the skeletal muscles - can be found in red meat and fish. Creatine is also available in supplement form, both as a powder and in capsules. It can be purchased in health food stores, some pharmacies, and online.

    Research suggests that supplemental creatine may help boost performance during brief, intense periods of exercise, such as weight lifting or sprinting. It also may help to decrease muscle fatigue by reducing the buildup of lactic acid (an energy waste product) in the body. Some studies have shown an increase in lean muscle mass as a result of creatine intake.

    Most studies show that, when taken as directed, creatine is a relatively safe product - however, this supplement may injure the kidneys, liver and heart, especially when taken in high doses. Some health care professionals believe that because creatine metabolizes into a toxic waste product (formaldehyde), it could cause damage to cells and blood vessels. More research needs to be done to determine the safety of creatine supplements, especially regarding their use by teens.
  • Steroid precursors - Steroid precursors are substances that the body converts into anabolic steroids, which are synthetic versions of testosterone. Anabolic steroids are used to build muscle and increase endurance.

    Anabolic steroids are illegal without a prescription, as are most steroid precursors. However, one steroid precursor, DHEA, is still available in over-the-counter form. Potential side effects of DHEA are the same as those of anabolic steroids: increased acne, male-pattern baldness, dark facial hair, deepening of the voice, and aggression. Anabolic steroids can also halt bone growth, and may result in a permanently short stature. When used chronically, they can damage the liver and the heart. .
  • Ephedra - Ephedra, also called ma huang, is a plant that contains two amphetamine-like stimulants: ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Athletes use ephedra products to provide quick energy and help with weight loss. But ephedra can cause dangerous side effects such as high blood pressure, irregular heart rhythm, seizure, stroke, and even death. These side effects are intensified when ephedra is combined with caffeine.

    The concern about ephedra products was so great that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned ephedra from being sold in dietary supplements in 2004. The scope of the FDA rule, though, does not pertain to traditional Chinese herbal remedies, so ma huang tea or other herbal products that contain ephedra can still be purchased. Some cold products also contain ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. .
Prevention Tips
What should parents do to prevent their teenagers from performance-enhancing drugs? First, reassure your child that you love and support him ¬regardless of his performance in athletics. Children who feel under pressure to succeed from parents and coaches may feel tempted to use OTC drugs to boost performance.

It's a good idea to discuss ethics with your child, too. The use of a drug to enhance performance is similar to cheating on a test.

It's also important to talk to your child about the risks of performance-enhancing drugs, and to explain that any benefits obtained from these products are minimal compared to the long-term problems that may result from their use. Make sure that she and her coach both know that you do not approve of performance-enhancing drugs.

Finally, monitor your teen's purchase and use of OTC medications. Check labels for ingredients, even if the products appear to be harmless. Keep in mind that many performance-enhancing drugs may be purchased over the Internet.

Parents have a great deal of influence over whether their children use drugs or not. Educate yourself so you can teach your teen that about performance-enhancing drugs are just not worth using.