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Prescription Drug Abuse

What is prescription drug abuse?
Prescription drug abuse is when someone takes a prescription drug that was
prescribed for someone else or in a manner or dosage other than what was
prescribed. Abuse can include taking a friend’s or relative’s prescription to get high, to treat pain, or because you think it will help with studying.

What are the most commonly abused prescription and over-thecounter drugs?
Opioids (such as the pain relievers OxyContin and Vicodin), central nervous system depressants (e.g., Xanax, Valium), and stimulants (e.g., Ritalin, Adderall) are the most commonly abused prescription drugs. Some drugs that are available without a prescription—also known as over-the-counter drugs—also can be dangerous if they aren’t taken according to the directions on the packaging. For example, DXM (dextromethorphan), the active cough suppressant found in many over-the-counter cough and cold medications, sometimes is abused, particularly by youth.

How many teens abuse prescription drugs?
Among youth who are 12 to 17 years old, 7.7 percent reported past-year nonmedical use of prescription medications. According to the 2010 Monitoring the Future survey, prescription and over-the-counter drugs are among the most commonly abused drugs by 12th graders, after alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco. Youth who abuse prescription medications are also more likely to report use of other drugs.

Where do teens get prescription drugs?
Both teens and young adults obtain the majority of prescription drugs from friends and relatives, sometimes without their knowledge. And in one survey, 54 percent of high school seniors said that opioid drugs other than heroin (e.g., Vicodin) would be fairly or very easy to get

Why do teens abuse prescription drugs?
Teens abuse prescription drugs for a number of reasons, including to get high, to treat pain, or because they think it will help them with school work. Interestingly, boys and girls tend to abuse some types of prescription drugs for different reasons. For example, boys are more apt to abuse prescription stimulants to get high, while girls tend to abuse them to stay alert.

What happens when you abuse prescription drugs?

Abusing prescription drugs can have negative short- and long-term health consequences. 

Stimulant abuse can cause paranoia, dangerously high body temperatures, and an irregular heartbeat, especially if stimulants are taken in high doses or in ways other than in pill form. The abuse of opioids can cause drowsiness, nausea, constipation, and, depending on the amount taken, slowed breathing. Abusing depressants can cause slurred speech, shallow breathing, fatigue, disorientation, lack of coordination, and seizures (upon withdrawal from chronic abuse). Abuse of any of these substances may result in addiction.

Abusing over-the-counter drugs that contain DXM—which usually involves taking doses much higher than recommended for treating coughs and colds—can impair motor function (such as walking or sitting up); produce numbness, nausea, and vomiting; and increase heart rate and blood pressure.

Abusing any type of mind-altering drug can affect judgment and inhibition and may put a person at heightened risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).


Aren’t prescription drugs safer than illegal drugs, such as cocaine or heroin?

No. Many people think that abusing prescription drugs is safer than Virtually every medication presents some risk of undesirable side effects, sometimes even serious ones. Doctors consider the potential benefits and risks to each patient before prescribing medications. Doctors ask about patients’ medical history, including what other health problems they have and what other medications they take. Based on this and other information (e.g., age and weight of the patient), physicians can prescribe medications while minimizing the risks. But when abused, some prescription drugs can be dangerous and can lead to severe health consequences, including addiction and overdose—just like illicit drugs can.


Why don’t people who take prescription drugs for medical conditions become addicted?

On rare occasions, they do, which is why a person must be under a doctor’s care while taking prescription medications, and sometimes when stopping their use. Long-term medical use of certain prescription drugs can lead to "physical dependence" because of the way the brain and the body naturally adapt to chronic drug exposure. A person may need larger doses of the drug to achieve the same initial effects (tolerance), and when drug use is stopped, withdrawal symptoms can occur. Dependence is not the same as addiction. Addiction is when someone continues to take the drug even when they know it is severely affecting his or her life.


Is it dangerous to abuse prescription drugs in combination with other drugs?

Yes. Both prescription and over-the-counter drugs pose increased risk of health
complications when combined with other prescription medications, over-thecounter medicines, illicit drugs, or alcohol. For example, combining opioids with alcohol can intensify respiratory distress and lead to death.



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