THURSDAY, Aug. 27, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Many American college students start experimenting with booze or drugs over the summer, but winter is the peak time for them to begin illegal use of prescription medicines, according to a U.S. government study.
"These findings show that college students are vulnerable to substance use at any time -- not just when they are away at school," Kana Enomoto, acting administrator of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), said in an agency news release.
"That means that parents, college counselors, faculty members, staff, mentors, and other concerned people must take every opportunity to talk with college students about the risks of substance use and where they can turn to for help," Enomoto added.
Researchers analyzed data collected from full-time college students, aged 18 to 22, between 2002 and 2013. The investigators found that 20 percent used alcohol, marijuana or other illegal drugs.
The study found that 383,000 students used marijuana for the first time each year, an average of about 1,000 a day. But first-time use of marijuana peaked in June at about 1,500 new users a day.
About 450,000 underage college students started drinking each year, an average of about 1,200 a day, the study found. The researchers reported that the start of underage drinking also peaked in June, at about 1,883 students a day.
But winter was the peak season for students to begin illegal use of prescription drugs, including painkillers (drugs such as Oxycontin, Vicodin or Percocet) and stimulants (such as Ritalin). About 251,000 college students started illegal use of pain relievers each year, an average of 700 a day. However, that number rose to 850 per day in December.
Illegal use of stimulants followed a different pattern, averaging 400 new college-age users a day. But that number rose to more than 500 a day in November, December and April, with a peak of 585 a day in November, the findings showed.
Many college midterm and final exams occur in those three months, which suggests that some students start illegal use of stimulants in the belief that it might help them on the exams, according to SAMHSA.
There is no proof that illegal use of stimulants improves academic performance, and such use can pose serious health risks, the agency warned.
The report also found that the peak times for college students to start smoking cigarettes are June, September and October.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about college health.