A major new study has revealed that prescription medications for childhood attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have spiked, a conclusion bound to fuel the increasing concern that these drugs are being misused and abused.

The study by the Food and Drug Administration, published online today, found that overall prescriptions for antibiotics dropped between 2002 and 2010.

Among those that dipped were cough medications, by 42 percent. In 2008, the FDA issued an advisory against over-the-counter drugs for minor coughs and colds in young children.

But it is the increase in ADHD medications — by 46 percent between 2002 and 2010 — that is most alarming, coming as it does at a time of particular attention to the issue.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that the number of children ages 3-17 with an ADHD diagnosis has increased from 4.4 million to 5 million in the time period of the study.

These medications can help those who suffer from ADHD endure what, for them, can be the constant distractions of daily life.

But the concern is not over legitimate use of the drugs.

Many young people without ADHD are believed to have embraced the drugs to achieve a high that comes with a strengthened ability to focus. It’s an affect that can give a student the energy to study all night or to focus for hours on end with little sleep — say, during a long-form test.

Last week, the New York Times chronicled how drugs meant to treat attention problems are being traded, sold and abused in highly competitive high schools. The downside is significant, though. The medications are addictive and come with a battery of side effects, such as severe depression during withdrawal.

Another indication of the spike in the use of the drugs, and their likely overuse, is that there’s been such an increase in demand for one of the most popular medications, Adderall, that there’s a shortage.

The spike in use has raised questions about how much pressure students feel and whether that pressure is coming from parents.

The FDA study did not look at the “whys” behind the medication trends.

“The data we used do not allow us to understand the reasons behind these trends,” FDA spokeswoman Sandy Walsh e-mailed me when I asked her about the study.

“We have shared this data in the hopes that others will initiate research to better understand the reasons behind the trends we see.”

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