Prescription drug abuse is the use of a prescription medication in a way not intended by the prescribing doctor (such as for the feelings you get from the drug), or taken by someone other than the person for whom they are prescribed. More than 16 million Americans older than age 12 are estimated to be current users of psychoactive (mind-altering) drugs taken nonmedically. The medications most commonly abused are:

  • Opioid pain relievers (such as Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet, morphine).
  • Sedatives and tranquilizers (such as Valium, Xanax, Nembutal, Ambian).
  • Stimulants for ADHD (such as Dexedrine, Ritalin, Adderall).

What causes this high prevalence?

Misperceptions about their safety: Because these medications are prescribed by doctors, many assume they are safe to take under any circumstance. This is not the case. Prescription drugs act directly or indirectly on the same brain systems affected by illicit drugs (street drugs). Using a medication other than as prescribed can potentially lead to a variety of adverse health effects, including overdose and addiction.

Varied motivations for their abuse: Underlying reasons include: to get high; to counter anxiety, pain, or sleep problems; or to enhance cognition. Whatever the motivation, prescription drug abuse comes with serious risks.

Risks of commonly used prescription drugs

Long-term use of opioids or sedatives/tranquilizers can lead to physical dependence and addiction. Opioids can produce drowsiness, constipation, confusion, and depending on the amount taken, can stop breathing, or result in a coma. Sedatives/tranquilizers slow down the brain function. If combined with other medications that cause drowsiness or with alcohol, heart rate and respiration can slow down dangerously. Abruptly stopping the medication may cause seizures. Taken repeatedly or in high doses, stimulants can cause anxiety or paranoia and can have strong effects on the cardiovascular system, causing dangerously high body temperatures, irregular heartbeat, hallucinations or seizures.

Signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse include:

  • Stealing, forging or selling prescriptions.
  • Taking higher doses than prescribed.
  • Excessive mood swings or hostility.
  • Increase or decrease in sleep.
  • Impaired decision making and dangerous behaviors such as drugged driving.
  • Appearing to be high, unusually energetic or revved up, or sedated.
  • Continually “losing” prescriptions, so more prescriptions must be written.
  • Seeking prescriptions from more than one doctor.

Treatment options for prescription drug abuse vary, but, counseling, also called “talk” therapy or psychotherapy, is typically a key part of treatment. Counseling can help determine what factors may have led to the prescription drug abuse, such as an underlying emotional problem or relationship problem. Counseling also can help an individual learn the skills needed to resist cravings, avoid abuse of drugs and help prevent recurrence of prescription drug problems. Detoxification may be needed as part of treatment. Withdrawal can be dangerous and should be done under a doctor’s care.

Here are ways to decrease your risk of abusing prescription drugs:

  • Tell your doctor about all your prescriptions as well as over-the-counter medications, herbs and supplements.
  • Ask your doctor if there’s an extended-release version of a medication or an alternative medication with ingredients that have less potential for addiction.
  • Follow directions carefully. Use your medication the way it was prescribed. Don’t stop or change the dose without talking with your doctor.
  • Know what your medication does. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the effects of your medication so you know what to expect.
  • Never use another person’s prescription.
  • Don’t order prescriptions online unless they’re from a trustworthy pharmacy.
  • Keep your prescription drugs in a locked medicine cabinet.
  • Talk to teens about the dangers of abusing prescribed medications.
  • Properly dispose of medications. You can ask your pharmacist if there is a medicine take-back program that accepts unused medications. Never flush medications down the toilet and only throw in the trash if the medication is removed from the container, mixed with coffee grounds, used kitty litter or other undesirable substance. Always remove the label and cross out identifying information.

Article provided by Cedar Crest Hospital & RTC, 3500 S. Interstate 35, Belton, (254) 939-2100; Cedar Crest Clinic, 3106 S. W.S. Young Drive, Suite B-201, Killeen, (254) 519-4162.

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