Many people who develop addictions don’t start with illegal substances. Those who have been prescribed a certain drug to help them deal with pain, a sleep disorder, or anxiety may find that their use of this substance gradually crosses the line into misuse, ultimately resulting in addiction. Others decide to try medications that were prescribed for someone else because they want to get high, reduce their appetite, or be better able to focus on studying. At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we have treated a lot of people whose addiction started with prescriptions.

Commonly Misused Prescription Medications

Some categories of prescription drugs are more commonly abused, due to their mind-altering properties:

  • Opioids – these include pain relievers like OxyContin and Percocet and meds containing hydrocodone
  • Anti-anxiety medications, sedatives, and  hypnotics – these include Xanax, diazepam, and Ambien, among others
  • Stimulants – these include medications like Ritalin, Concerta, Adderall, and Dexedrine 

Warning Signs of Drug Misuse

If someone you know has been misusing one of the categories of drugs listed above, the signs they exhibit could depend on what type of medication they have been misusing.

  • Opioids
      • Gastrointestinal issues like nausea and constipation
      • Slowed breathing
      • Confusion
      • Fatigue
      • Lack of coordination
      • A cycle of increased sensitivity to pain and increased dosage
  • Anti-anxiety meds and sedatives
      • Sleepiness
      • Confusion/poor concentration and memory
      • Slurred speech
      • Dizziness
      • Slowed breathing
      • Trouble walking
  • Stimulants
    • Especially alert
    • Irregular heartbeat
    • High blood pressure and body temperature
    • Low appetite
    • Less need for sleep
    • Agitation, anxiety, or paranoia

Other signs of drug misuse could be present, regardless of what substance the person has been using:

  • Forging/stealing/selling prescriptions
  • Taking higher doses than their doctor prescribed
  • Mood swings
  • Poor decision making
  • “Losing” prescriptions or trying to get meds filled early
  • Increasing supply by 
    • Going to more than one prescriber for the same medication
    • Stealing meds from a loved one
    • Buying medication from other people 
    • Ordering the drug online 
    • Taking medications intended for animals

Risk Factors

Some people are at greater risk for misusing prescription medication, due to:

    • Past or present addictions to other substances
    • Family history of addiction
    • Mental health conditions
    • An environment that is stressful or promotes drug use
    • Easy access to prescription drugs
  • Lack of understanding about the potential risks associated with misusing prescription medications

Potential Consequences

Misusing prescription medications can be just as dangerous as misusing illicit substances. The possible consequences of misusing prescription medications include:

  • Dependence – The person’s body may become increasingly tolerant of the drug, requiring higher and higher doses to achieve the same effect. They may experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to reduce or stop their drug use.
  • Addiction – The person may begin to compulsively seek out the drug and keep using it even after they have begun to have serious consequences from doing so.
  • Illicit substance use – If the person becomes dependent on prescription meds and then loses access to them, they may find themselves switching to illegal substances.
  • Overdose – When a person overdoses on opioids or anti-anxiety medications, it can cause their heart and breathing to drop dangerously low or even stop. They may enter a coma or die. When a person takes too many stimulants, their body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure can increase to dangerously high levels. Seizures can occur from taking stimulants or withdrawing from anti-anxiety medications.
  • Risky behavior – Driving under the influence, engaging in unsafe sexual behavior, and using drugs in ways that expose the person to blood-borne diseases are more likely to occur when a person is not thinking clearly due to drug use. 
  • Criminal activity and legal problems – This can be anything from getting caught driving under the influence to theft to losing one’s children to the child welfare system. 

Helping Young People Avoid Prescription Drug Misuse

Adolescents and young adults are naturally curious and open to experimentation. Their mental development may also prevent them from recognizing the dangerous consequences of misusing prescription medications, so they need guidance from adults to stay safe. Parents can:

  • Discuss the risks of: 
    • Taking medications prescribed for someone else
    • Taking their own medications in a way their doctor did not intend
    • Mixing alcohol and medications
  • Keep medications secured in a locked safe or medicine cabinet and know how much you have on hand.
  • Ensure your child is not buying drugs online. This is dangerous not only because it could allow them to take prescription medications not prescribed for them, but also because some of the medications sold online are not what they claim to be and could place anyone who takes them at higher risk for overdose.
  • Properly dispose of unused medications. Once it is clear that a medication is no longer needed, contact your pharmacist for advice on how to properly dispose of it, so that it is not hanging around and potentially creating temptation.

If you are seeing signs that you or a loved one might be developing a dependence on or addiction to prescription medications, it is important to seek out help right away. Safe Harbor Recovery Center’s team of professionals can answer your questions and help you determine what steps to take next.