Taking prescription drugs in a way that hasn't been recommended by a doctor can
be more dangerous than people think. In fact, it's drug abuse. And it's illegal, just
like taking street drugs.
Why Do People Abuse Prescription Drugs?
Some people abuse prescription drugs because they think they will help them have
more fun, lose weight, fit in, and even study
more effectively. Prescription drugs can be easier to get than street drugs: Family
members or friends may have them. But prescription drugs are also sometimes sold on
the street like other illegal drugs. In 2017, 1 in 7 teens surveyed said they have
taken a prescription drug without a doctor's prescription.
But prescription drugs are only safe for the people who have prescriptions for
them. That's because a doctor has examined these people and prescribed the right dose
of medicine for their medical condition. The doctor has also told them exactly how
they should take the medicine, including things to avoid while taking the drug. They
also are aware of side effects and can watch patients closely for these.
Which Drugs Are Abused?
The most commonly used prescription drugs fall into three classes:
Examples: oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and meperidine
Medical uses: Opioids are used to treat pain or relieve coughs
How they work: Opioids attach to opioid receptors in the central
nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord), preventing the brain from receiving
2. Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants
Examples: phenobarbital (Luminal), diazepam (Valium), and alprazolam
Medical uses: CNS depressants are used to treat anxiety, tension,
panic attacks, and sleep disorders.
How they work: CNS depressants slow down brain activity by increasing
the activity of a neurotransmitter called GABA. The result is a drowsy or calming
Examples: methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine/dextroamphetamine
Medical uses: Stimulants can be used to treat narcolepsy and
How they work: Stimulants increase brain activity, resulting
in greater alertness, attention, and energy.
What Are the Dangers of Abusing Medicines?
The likelihood that someone will commit a crime, be a victim of a crime, or have
an accident is higher when that person is abusing drugs — no matter whether
those drugs are medicines or street drugs.
Like all drug abuse, using prescription drugs for the wrong reasons has serious
risks for a person's health.
Opioid abuse can lead to vomiting, mood changes, decrease in ability
to think (cognitive function), and even decreased respiratory function, coma, or death.
This risk is higher when prescription drugs like opioids are taken with other substances
like alcohol, antihistamines, and CNS depressants.
CNS depressant abuse is risky too. Abruptly stopping or reducing
them too quickly can lead to seizures. Taking CNS depressants with other medicines,
such as prescription painkillers, some over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines,
or alcohol can slow a person's heartbeat and breathing — and even kill.
Stimulant abuse (like with some ADHD drugs) may cause heart failure
or seizures. These risks are increased when stimulants are mixed with other medicines
— even OTC ones like cold medicines. Taking too much of a stimulant can lead
to a dangerously high body temperature or an irregular heartbeat. High doses over
a short period may make someone aggressive or paranoid. Stimulant abuse might not
lead to physical dependence and withdrawal, but users might take the drugs so often
that they become a hard habit to break.
The dangers of prescription drug abuse can be made even worse if people take drugs
in a way they weren't intended to be used. Ritalin may seem harmless because it's
prescribed even for little kids with ADHD. But when a person takes it either unnecessarily
or in a way it wasn’t intended (such as snorting or injection), Ritalin toxicity
can be serious.
Probably the most common risk of prescription drug abuse is addiction.
People who abuse medicines can become addicted as easily as if they were taking street
drugs. That's one reason most doctors won't renew a prescription unless they see the
patient — they want to examine the patient to make sure he or she isn't getting
Tips for Taking Prescription Medicine
If a doctor prescribes a pain medicine, stimulant, or CNS depressant, follow the
directions exactly. Also be sure to:
Keep all doctor's appointments. Your doctor will want you to visit often so he
or she can see how well the medicine is working for you and adjust the dose or change
the medication as needed.
Make a note of the effects the drug has on your body and emotions, especially
in the first few days as your body gets used to it. Tell your doctor about these.
Keep any information your pharmacist gives you about any drugs or activities you
should steer clear of while taking your prescription.
Never increase or decrease the dose of your medicine without checking with your
doctor's office first.
Finally, never use someone else's prescription. And don't allow anyone to use yours.
Not only are you putting others at risk, but you could suffer too: Pharmacists may
be stopped from refilling a prescription if a medicine has been used up before it
should be. And if you're found giving medicine to someone else, it's considered a
crime and you could find yourself in court.