Commonly abused prescription drugs
Although a significant percentage of the population that is prescribed such medications takes them responsibly and as intended, when abused prescription medications can be addictive and dangerous.
Following are the three main types of prescription drugs that are commonly abused:
- Opioid painkillers (e.g., codeine, hydrocodone, fentanyl, oxycodone, etc.), that block the sensation of pain by binding to opioid receptors in the brain and throughout the nervous system
- Central nervous system (CNS) depressants (also referred to as tranquilizers, sedatives and hypnotics), including benzodiazepines, barbiturates and non-benzodiazepine sleep medications, that slow brain activity by increasing gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) to make people feel calmer, sedated and relaxed
- Stimulants: Stimulant medications, including amphetamines such as Adderall and methylphenidate (e.g., Concerta, Ritalin), prescription stimulants that are commonly prescribed for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), that raise heart rate, blood pressure and can strain the heart, potentially having fatal cardiovascular consequences
Prevalence of prescription drug abuse
Thousands of people begin taking prescription medications for nonmedical reasons, or reasons other than prescribed, every year. According to the latest data, in 2016, an estimated 6.2 million Americans, aged 12 or above (2.3 percent) misused prescription drugs (pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives) at least once in the past month with about 1 in 60 adolescents aged 12 to 17 (1.6 percent) currently misusing prescription drugs. Of the four categories, prescription pain relievers were the most commonly misused drugs. Additionally, there were:
- 3 million people (aged 12 or above) who reported misusing opioid prescription pain relievers
- 0 million people (aged 12 or above) who reported misusing prescription tranquilizers
- 7 million people (aged 12 or above) who reported misusing prescription stimulants
- 5 million people (aged 12 or above) who reported misusing prescription sedatives
Of all the age groups, young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 often have the highest rates of nonmedical prescription medication use. Young people who take prescription medications for nonmedical reasons are more likely to smoke cigarettes, drink heavily and use marijuana, cocaine and other illicit drugs.
Prescription drug abuse: Signs and symptoms
Regardless of their chemical makeup, prescription drugs generally work by suppressing or promoting chemical reactions in the brain. Considered one of the most poorly recognized forms of chemical dependency, the earlier the drug abuse gets detected, the better chances one has at recovery.
Following are some of the common signs of prescription drug abuse:
- Noticeable mood swings
- Poor judgment
- Changing sleep patterns
- Lying or stealing to obtain drugs
- Anger, irritability and hostility
- Stealing or forging prescriptions
One of the signs of prescription drug addiction includes secretive behavior.
Dangers of prescription drug abuse
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), prescription drug abuse has contributed to significant morbidity and mortality in the United States, as well as a dramatic rise in the number of emergency room visits, overdoses and deaths. It can contribute to harmful physical and mental health consequences, especially when used in combination with alcohol, other prescription medications and illicit drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin.
The signs of prescription drug abuse vary greatly depending on the type of drug that is being abused. For example, prescription opioid drug abuse can be life-threatening as high doses can depress respiration to the point where breathing stops. Prescription opioid painkillers are the most commonly abused prescription drugs and contribute towards more than half of all overdoses and deaths in the United States.
Consequences of prescription drug addiction
Most drugs of abuse, including prescription medications, affect the brain’s reward system and lead to tolerance or the need to take more of the drug to feel a “high.” People who repeatedly take prescription drugs can also develop physical dependence and experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop taking the medication on their own. Withdrawals can be so severe that they prompt the person to start using the drug again, making professional prescription drug addiction treatment necessary.
Prescription drug addiction is another consequence of prescription drug abuse and misuse. Addiction is when a person compulsively takes drugs despite negative or harmful consequences that result from his or her drug use and neglects all other important areas of his or her life.