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Pharmaceutical & Recreational Drug Use During & After COVID-19 Pandemic (2020-2023 in Latvia) (2024 Study)

The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably transformed various facets of human life, including our health behaviors and substance consumption patterns.

Through the lens of wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE), a study conducted in Riga, Latvia, from December 2020 to July 2023, sheds light on how the pandemic and subsequent restrictions have impacted the use of pharmaceuticals and recreational drugs.

This research not only offers insights into the shifts in drug consumption during and after the pandemic but also highlights the potential of WBE as a tool for monitoring public health trends.


  1. Wastewater-Based Epidemiology (WBE) Utilized: The study employed WBE to assess the consumption trends of both pharmaceuticals (e.g., antibiotics, antihypertensives) and recreational drugs (e.g., caffeine, alcohol, nicotine) in Latvia, providing a non-invasive method to gauge public health.
  2. Impact of COVID-19 and Restrictions: The findings indicated significant changes in the consumption patterns of certain drugs, with increased use of antihypertensives, antidepressants, psychiatric medications, and ibuprofen during the pandemic.
  3. Seasonal Trends Observed: Seasonal consumption patterns were notable, particularly for antibiotics and certain pharmaceuticals, which saw higher use during colder months, aligning with the prevalence of respiratory infections.
  4. WBE as a Public Health Tool: This study underscores the efficacy of WBE in capturing the indirect effects of global health crises like COVID-19 on drug consumption patterns, offering a valuable resource for public health monitoring and response.

Source: International Journal of Research & Public Health (2024)

Major Findings: COVID-19 & Drug Use Patterns (Recreational & Pharmaceutical)

Laura Elina Tomsone et al. conducted a study in Latvia from 2020-2023 using wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) to investigate consumption trends of various classes of pharmaceuticals and recreational drugs during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Recreational Drugs


Caffeine consumption was high, reflecting its status as a ubiquitous stimulant.

The study found a decrease during summer months, possibly due to a shift towards colder beverages or reduced consumption of hot drinks like coffee and tea.

The overall high consumption, however, could suggest increased use as a coping mechanism for stress or altered routines during lockdowns.


Alcohol consumption patterns exhibited significant increases, particularly during holiday periods, which might indicate its use as a social lubricant or stress reliever.

The findings suggest that the pandemic, coupled with restrictions, may have led to increased alcohol intake at home, potentially as a response to stress, isolation, and the lack of social engagement opportunities.


Nicotine usage saw a general increase, pointing towards stress-related consumption.

The pandemic’s impact on social behaviors could have influenced smoking patterns, with more individuals possibly turning to nicotine as a stress relief tool amid the heightened anxiety and restrictions of the pandemic period.

2. Pharmaceutical Medications


The study observed a seasonal increase in antibiotic consumption during colder months, aligning with the prevalence of respiratory infections.

However, the pandemic’s influence on healthcare practices, including potentially increased antibiotic prescribing or self-medication in response to COVID-19 symptoms, could also play a role in these trends.

Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

Ibuprofen stood out for its significant consumption, likely due to its role in managing fever and pain, symptoms associated with COVID-19.

The increased use of NSAIDs during the pandemic suggests a trend towards self-medication and managing symptoms at home, reflecting public hesitancy to visit healthcare facilities.


Increased consumption of antihypertensive drugs was noted, possibly as a result of pandemic-induced stress affecting cardiovascular health.

The absence of seasonal consumption variation in 2021 may indicate that the stress and health impacts of the pandemic were significant enough to influence blood pressure management practices consistently throughout the year.


The stable consumption of antiepileptic drugs across the study period suggests that the pandemic did not significantly alter the medication routines for epilepsy and related conditions.

This stability underscores the necessity of continuous medication adherence for managing chronic conditions, even amidst global health crises.

3. During COVID-19 Pandemic

Recreational Drugs

  • Increased Consumption: The immediate impact of the pandemic saw a marked increase in the consumption of recreational drugs like alcohol and nicotine, a trend that can be attributed to heightened stress, anxiety, and the effects of social isolation. Alcohol, in particular, showed significant spikes during holiday periods, reflecting its use as both a social lubricant in limited gatherings and a stress reliever during periods of lockdown.
  • Caffeine: Interestingly, caffeine consumption remained high but saw reductions during summer months, possibly due to changes in daily routines and the closure of social venues like cafes, leading to a decrease in social coffee consumption.

Pharmaceutical Medications

  • Antibiotics and NSAIDs: There was a noticeable increase in the consumption of antibiotics and NSAIDs, reflecting a proactive approach to managing symptoms associated with COVID-19 and other respiratory infections. This trend underscores a shift towards self-medication and an attempt to manage health concerns without direct healthcare intervention.
  • Antihypertensives: The consumption of antihypertensive medications increased, likely due to stress-induced cardiovascular issues during the pandemic.

4. After COVID-19 Pandemic

As the study progressed into the post-pandemic period, some notable shifts in drug consumption patterns emerged.

Recreational Drugs

  • Normalization of Consumption Patterns: The consumption patterns of alcohol and nicotine began to show signs of normalization as restrictions eased, reflecting a gradual return to pre-pandemic social behaviors and stress levels. However, the data suggest that levels did not fully return to baseline, indicating lasting impacts of the pandemic on societal stress and recreational drug use.
  • Caffeine: The seasonal variation in caffeine consumption became more pronounced post-pandemic, potentially reflecting a resumption of regular social and work routines, including the return of social coffee drinking habits.

Pharmaceutical Medications

  • Shifts in Antibiotic and NSAID Use: The use of antibiotics and NSAIDs showed a decline towards pre-pandemic levels as public health measures controlled the spread of COVID-19 and related respiratory illnesses, leading to reduced self-medication practices.
  • Stabilization of Antihypertensive Use: The consumption of antihypertensives began to stabilize, suggesting that the acute stressors of the pandemic were diminishing, although not necessarily indicating a complete return to pre-pandemic stress levels.
  • Antiepileptics: The stable consumption of antiepileptic drugs throughout the pandemic and into the post-pandemic period highlights the continuity of care for chronic conditions, unaffected by the fluctuations seen with other medications and recreational drugs.

COVID-19 vs. Drug Use Trends in Latvia (2020-2023)

The primary objective of the study was to:

  • Evaluate the trends in consumption of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antiepileptics, antihypertensives, and others, as well as recreational drugs such as caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine.
  • Investigate the impact of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and the post-pandemic period on these consumption patterns.
  • Explore the seasonality of drug usage and its relation to the incidence of seasonal flu and other respiratory infections.


  • Wastewater samples were systematically collected from the influent of a major wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) serving Riga, Latvia, covering a population of approximately 697,000.
  • Sampling occurred weekly from December 2020 to July 2023, yielding a comprehensive dataset across different seasons and pandemic phases.
  • Utilized heart-cutting two-dimensional high-performance liquid chromatography (2D-HPLC) coupled with mass spectrometry (MS) for the quantitative determination of 40 targeted compounds in wastewater samples.
  • Analytical standards and protocols were designed to ensure accurate quantification and reliability of the data.
  • Concentrations of analytes were translated into consumption data by correcting for compound-specific excretion factors and normalizing to the size of the contributing population.
  • Seasonal and pandemic-related trends were analyzed to assess changes in drug consumption patterns.


  • Observed a significant impact of the pandemic on the consumption of caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, with distinct patterns emerging, such as lower usage of caffeine and alcohol during summer months.
  • Indicated stress-related increases in alcohol and nicotine use during the pandemic period.
  • Noted increased consumption of certain pharmaceuticals, including antihypertensives, antidepressants, psychiatric drugs, and ibuprofen, suggesting pandemic-related effects on physical and mental health.
  • Identified seasonal trends in antibiotic usage and other pharmaceuticals, corresponding with the prevalence of respiratory infections during colder months.


  • Extrapolation of Data: While WBE provides valuable insights into population-level consumption trends, individual consumption patterns cannot be directly inferred.
  • Influence of External Factors: Factors such as drug disposal practices, environmental degradation of substances, and varying excretion rates among individuals can affect the accuracy of consumption estimates.
  • Population Mobility: Changes in the population size served by the WWTP due to travel restrictions or quarantine measures could influence concentration data, potentially skewing consumption estimates.
  • Analytical Challenges: The quantification of certain compounds, especially those with multiple metabolites or those subject to significant in-sewer transformation, presents analytical challenges that can impact the accuracy of consumption estimates.
  • Regional Specificity: The study’s findings are specific to Latvia, which may limit the generalizability of the results to other regions or countries with different social, cultural, and healthcare systems. Drug consumption patterns can vary significantly based on regional factors such as policy, availability, and cultural attitudes towards drug use.
  • Comparative Analysis: The lack of comparative data from other geographical locations means that the study provides a deep, but localized insight into drug consumption trends. Expanding the geographical scope of WBE studies can help in understanding global patterns and regional differences in drug use during the pandemic.
  • Limited Range of Substances: The study focused on a specific set of pharmaceuticals and recreational drugs, potentially overlooking the consumption trends of other significant substances like cannabis, which has been legalized or decriminalized in various parts of the world and could have seen changes in use patterns during the pandemic.
  • Emerging Substances of Abuse: The absence of data on newer or emerging drugs of abuse (e.g., synthetic opioids, designer drugs) may also limit the study’s ability to provide a comprehensive overview of the drug use landscape. These substances can have significant public health implications, especially in the context of a global health crisis.
  • Pharmacokinetics & Environmental Persistence: Not all substances have well-understood pharmacokinetics or are easily detectable in wastewater, which could affect the study’s ability to accurately estimate their consumption. Furthermore, the environmental persistence and degradation of various substances can influence their detectability and the accuracy of consumption estimates.

Why were these changes in drug use observed during COVID-19?

The COVID-19 pandemic has markedly influenced global health, economic stability, and social norms.

The study conducted in Latvia using wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) provides significant insights into how these disruptions have affected drug use patterns.

The shifts in consumption of both pharmaceuticals and recreational drugs during the pandemic period can be attributed to various intertwined factors.

Increased Stress & Mental Health Issues

  • Mental Health: The pandemic has induced widespread stress, anxiety, and depression due to health fears, social isolation, economic uncertainty, and disruptions to daily life. This environment likely contributed to increased consumption of antidepressants, psychiatric medications, and substances like alcohol and nicotine, used by individuals as coping mechanisms.
  • Self-Medication: With increased stress levels and perhaps difficulty accessing healthcare services, there was a notable rise in the use of over-the-counter medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including ibuprofen, for managing symptoms of stress and minor illnesses.

Changes in Healthcare Access & Practices

  • Healthcare Access: Lockdowns and fear of contracting the virus in healthcare settings led to reduced access to routine medical care and alterations in prescription practices. This might have influenced the increased use of certain medications, as patients sought to manage chronic conditions and acute illnesses at home.
  • Telemedicine & Prescription Practices: The pivot to telemedicine could have affected prescription practices, potentially leading to changes in medication adherence and consumption patterns, as observed with the increased use of antihypertensives.

Lifestyle & Behavioral Changes

  • Social Isolation & Lockdowns: The restrictions on movement and social gatherings significantly altered daily routines. The consumption patterns of caffeine and alcohol, for instance, shifted, with possible reductions in social drinking and changes in coffee consumption habits as people stayed home.
  • Physical Activity & Health Awareness: The pandemic spurred an increased focus on health and well-being for some, potentially influencing the use of pharmaceuticals and recreational drugs as people sought to manage health concerns proactively or reactively.

Seasonal Influences & COVID-19 Interactions

  • Seasonality: The study highlighted seasonal trends in drug consumption, such as increased use of antibiotics and certain other pharmaceuticals during colder months, likely influenced by the prevalence of seasonal illnesses. The pandemic may have amplified these patterns due to heightened awareness of respiratory symptoms.
  • COVID-19 Symptoms Management: The specific increase in the consumption of drugs like ibuprofen may also reflect the management of COVID-19 symptoms at home, as individuals sought to self-medicate fever and pain associated with the virus.

Environmental & Social Stressors

  • Economic Uncertainty: Economic stress due to job losses, reduced income, and uncertainty about the future may have led to increased substance use as a form of stress relief.
  • Cabin Fever: Prolonged periods of lockdown and home confinement might have led to “cabin fever,” increasing the likelihood of substance use as a means of coping with boredom or frustration.

Conclusion: COVID-19 Drug Use Trends in Latvia (2020-2023)

The wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) study conducted in Latvia during the COVID-19 pandemic provides critical insights into how global health crises can significantly alter drug consumption patterns across a population.

By analyzing the trends in pharmaceutical and recreational drug use, the study highlights the increased reliance on certain medications and substances as coping mechanisms for stress, isolation, and health concerns during the pandemic.

Notably, the rise in the consumption of antidepressants, antihypertensives, and substances like alcohol and nicotine underscores the profound impact of the pandemic on mental and physical health.

The study’s findings also emphasize the importance of WBE as a powerful tool for real-time, non-invasive monitoring of public health trends, offering a unique lens through which to view the indirect effects of pandemic-related restrictions and societal changes.

Furthermore, the observed seasonal variations in drug consumption patterns provide valuable insights for healthcare planning and resource allocation, especially in anticipation of future public health crises.

Overall, this research underscores the need for flexible and responsive public health strategies that can adapt to the dynamic challenges posed by pandemics, highlighting the critical role of WBE in informing these efforts.


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