Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drugs are powerful medications commonly prescribed to treat specific medical conditions.

Physicians carefully chart a patient’s illness so that the best possible medication is prescribed. Prescription drugs are potent, but they have potential side effects that limit their use to certain patients. Unfortunately, some cases of prescription drug abuse have occurred. Abuse occurs when the drug is used improperly (too frequently or too high of a dose) or by someone other than the patient.

What Prescription Drugs Are Commonly Abused?

There are many prescription medications, but there are only a relative few that are abused on a consistent basis, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

  • Opioids. These are strong narcotics commonly used to treat patients suffering from overwhelming or chronic pain. Opioids work by interfering with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Opioids, such as morphine, prevent the brain from interpreting pain signals. Most opioids also activate the brain’s pleasure center and improve the patient’s mood. Examples of opioids include morphine and codeine.
  • CNS Depressants. These are prescription drugs given to patients suffering from anxiety, paranoia, mania or agitation. Physicians may also use CNS depressants to treat insomnia and other sleep disorders. CNS depressants include lorazepam and diazepam.
  • Stimulants. Stimulant medications are typically prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a disorder characterized by sudden loss of consciousness and muscle paralysis. Ritalin (generic name: methylphenidate) is a commonly abused stimulant.

Though other prescription drugs may be abused, these three groups of medications are the most commonly abused.

Why People Abuse Prescription Drugs

Most people who abuse medications think it will add to their pleasure levels, help them lose weight, improve study habits, or do so due to peer pressure.

The possible reasons for abusing prescription drugs are manifold. In some cases, especially in adolescents, there is the misconception that abusing prescription drugs is not as dangerous as using illicit drugs. However, improper use of prescription drugs is just as dangerous in certain cases as using illegal drugs. If you are legally using prescription drugs, make sure that your prescription is kept away from teenagers or other potential drug abusers. You should be the only one taking your prescription medication.

Opioid addicts use narcotic medications to help relieve perceived pain, but more commonly use them to experience a sense of euphoria or “high.” Opiates and other tranquilizers, like CNS depressants, are also used to relieve stress and tension.

CNS depressants are commonly abused as recreational drugs especially when combined with other drugs, like alcohol and marijuana. Many addicts believe that taking CNS depressants, like Valium or Ativan, is safer than using illegal drugs, like cocaine or heroin.

Stimulants are often used to deal with high-stress situations, like studying for an exam or meeting a particularly strict deadline.

In all of these situations, prescription medications are used inappropriately and are potentially dangerous to the users. Stimulants also decrease appetite and have the potential to be abused by teens or adults who are trying to lose weight.

Risk Factors

Prescription drug abuse is more likely when the potential addict is exposed to or lives in a certain environment.

Possible risk factors for prescription drug abuse include:

  • Younger age (adolescence to early 20s)
  • History or current addiction to other drugs, including alcohol
  • Intense exposure to peer pressure or an environment with rampant drug abuse
  • Access to prescription drugs (healthcare workers, physician’s children, etc.)
  • Misconceptions about prescription drug use (safe, legal, beneficial, etc.)

All of these risk factors place the addict in a situation conducive to prescription drug abuse. Treating an addiction to prescription drug abuse should, at least temporarily, remove the addict from any potential risk factors that encourage drug abuse.


Nemours Teens Health reports that at least 20 percent of the teen population admits to taking prescription drugs without a physician’s prescription. Even more worrisome is that this number is rising. Most of the justice and police agencies are focused on staunching the production and distribution of illegal drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana, while prescription drug abuse goes unnoticed.

Gaining access to prescription drugs has never been easier.

In the past, addicts would need to falsify medical records and trick a physician into prescribing the medication, or steal from a friend or relative. However, with the advent of online pharmacies, addicts are able to order powerful opioids and other prescription drugs without a prescription. This is possible because many online sites operate in other countries where the medications can be obtained without a prescription.

An even more dangerous practice occurs when websites sell counterfeit or contaminated drugs that may or may not contain the drug the addict is seeking, but will probably contain other dangerous chemicals that can cause adverse and unpredictable effects.

Signs of Abuse

Prescription drug abuse is pervasive in American society and the best possible prognosis is achieved when diagnosis is made early.

Early diagnosis takes place when doctors, friends or family members recognize the following symptoms of prescription drug abuse, the Mayo Clinic explains:

  • Faking doctors’ prescriptions
  • Taking high doses of medications
  • Drastic mood swings
  • Abnormal sleeping habits (either excessive or decreased sleep)
  • Decrease in concentration and decision-making skills
  • Change in energy levels (either too energetic or sedated)
  • Seeking prescriptions from multiple doctors or hospitals
  • History of “losing” prescriptions and then asking for more medications

In addition, there are specific signs and symptoms for the three most commonly abused prescription drug groups.

  • Opioids. Most addicts will suffer from constipation, a decrease or difficulty in breathing, and low blood pressure. Other psychological symptoms include depression and confusion. Symptoms become more prominent as the drug abuse continues. Larger doses are associated with more severe symptoms.
  • CNS Depressants. CNS depressants (also known as sedative and tranquilizers) cause drowsiness, confusion and poor judgment. As the drug affects the brain, patients will develop an unsteady gait and involuntary rapid movement of the eyes.
  • Stimulants. Stimulant abuse causes unexpected weight loss, agitation, insomnia (trouble sleeping), irritability and anxiety. Some addicts will suffer from high blood pressure and irregular heartbeat.

If you or a loved one is experiencing general or specific symptoms of prescription drug abuse, contact a healthcare professional. Prompt diagnosis and treatment allows for the best possible prognosis. Delaying treatment exposes the addict to a high risk of side effects and long-term consequences.

Consequences of Abuse

Prescription drug abuse causes short-term health effects, but there are potentially more long-term consequences associated with prescription medications.

  • Opioid painkillers interfere with your choke reflex and therefore increase your risk of choking. Women may experience a loss of menstrual periods and both genders may suffer from infertility. In severe cases, opioids cause a significant decrease in breathing, and overdosing causes respiratory arrest. Opiate addicts may also experience gastrointestinal pain and necrosis (death) of some of the intestines.
  • Abusing CNS depressants is associated with memory problems and abnormalities in body temperature. Addicts will have a difficult time concentrating and experience short-term memory loss. Chronic abuse of CNS sedatives can lead to long-term memory loss. Overdosing on these medications leads to sedation, coma, and death.
  • Stimulants cause seizures and muscle tremors. Consistent seizures can damage the brain, liver and other organs. Stimulant addicts often experience auditory and visual hallucinations, which can lead to paranoia and psychosis. Abusing stimulants also increases the risk of stroke and heart attacks.

Addiction is one of the worst possible consequences associated with prescription drug abuse. Most abused prescription medications activate the brain’s reward center. This activation motivates the addict to continue to use the drug and increases the risk of addiction.

An addiction to prescription drugs is signified by continued use of the drug of choice despite obvious harm to health, work output, lifestyle and relationships. Furthermore, addicts are unable to quit their drug habit despite attempting to quit. Most addicts require professional treatment in order to overcome their addiction. The initial phase of treatment requires helping the addict accept treatment.

Prescription Drug Intervention Benefits

Helping a loved one with prescription drug abuse is often difficult. Most addicts react with denial and anger, and this may discourage you as you may damage your relationship with your loved one.

Calling a professional interventionist or intervention service is often the most effective way to start treatment for prescription drug addiction.

An intervention, when organized properly, helps the addict be honest about his or her drug use and provides an avenue for treatment. Many addicts do not want to face the numerous adverse effects associated with their drug abuse but, when confronted with multiple accounts from the friends and family addicts, are able to see more clearly.

Furthermore, interventions help friends and family adversely affected by a loved one’s addiction to prescription drugs.

Interventionists provide information on drug addiction and the best ways to cope with any damaging effects.

Family members also learn the best ways to help the recovering addict avoid relapse.

Further Reading About Prescription Drug Abuse