Prescription drug abuse is the use of a prescribed drug in a way not intended by the prescribing doctor. Prescription drug abuse or nonprescription use includes everything from taking a friend’s prescribed painkiller for your backache to snorting or injecting ground-up pills to get high. Drug abuse may become continuous and compulsive, despite its negative consequences.
Prescription drug abuse is an increasing problem, and can affect all age groups, including teens. The prescription drugs most often abused include opioid painkillers, anti-anxiety medications, sedatives and stimulants.
Early recognition of prescription drug abuse and early intervention may prevent the problem from turning into an addiction.
Signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse depend on the used drug. Because of their mind-altering properties, the most commonly abused prescription drugs are:
• Opioids used to treat pain, for example medications containing oxycodone — such as Oxycontin and Roxicodone — and those containing hydrocodone — such as Vicodin, Lortab and Norco.
• Anti-anxiety medications and sedatives, such as alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium), and hypnotics, such as zolpidem (Ambien), used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders.
• Stimulants, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta, others), dextroamphetamine and amphetamine (Adderall XR), and dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and certain sleep disorders.
Signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse
• Feeling high (euphoria)
• Slow breathing
• Poor coordination
• Increased pain, even with higher doses
Anti-anxiety medications and sedatives
• Unsteady walking
• Slurred speech
• Problems with memory
• Slowed breathing
• Reduced appetite
• High body temperature
• High blood pressure
• Irregular heartbeat
Other signs include:
• Selling, stealing or forging prescriptions.
• Taking higher doses than prescribed.
• Excessive mood swings or excessive hostility.
• Sleep disorder.
• Poor decision-making skills.
• Appearing to be high, unusually energetic or effervescent, or sedated.
• Continually “losing” prescriptions, so making more requests to early refills.
• Seeking prescriptions from more than one doctor.
Abusing prescription drugs can cause many problems. Prescription drugs can be especially dangerous —maybe lead to death— when used in high doses, when combined with other prescription drugs or certain over-the-counter medications, or when used with alcohol or illegal drugs.
Physical dependence and addiction
Because commonly abused prescription drugs activate the brain’s reward center, it is possible to cause physical dependence and addiction.
• Physical dependence (also called tolerance) is the body’s response to long-term use. People who are physically dependent on a drug may need higher doses to get the drug effects and may experience withdrawal symptoms when cutting back or stopping the drug all at once. Physical dependence may also become evident if a drug the body depend on over time, even without dosage change, is stopped suddenly.
• Addiction. People who are addicted to a drug can have physical dependence, but they also compulsively seek a drug and continue to use it even when that drug causes significant problems in their lives.