It’s not uncommon for people who develop addictions to start by using legally prescribed medications.
Doctors report that they are writing more prescriptions than ever before, making meds more accessible. While they may initially have a prescription, some people struggle to use the drug as prescribed or to stop using it when directed. They may have also acquired the med from someone with a prescription, but do not have a prescription themselves.
Three categories of prescription medicines are abused the most: opioids, depressants, and stimulants. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has a chart that outlines the risks of abusing these and other types of drugs, as well as treatment options.
The general public has become increasingly aware of the misuse of prescription opioids, which are generally used to treat moderate to severe pain. This epidemic has led many people to turn to street drugs when they can no longer get a prescription or the prescribed medication becomes too expensive.
According to Healthline.com, in their article The Most Addictive Prescription Drugs on the Market, the most commonly abuse prescription opioids are:
- Oxycodone (OxyContin) – also sometimes sold combined with acetaminophen, as Percocet
- Fentanyl – the legal version is not abused as commonly as the street variety
- Meperidine (Demerol)
Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants
Another category of commonly abused prescription drugs are depressants. These meds are often used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. Barbiturates and benzodiazepines fall into this group, but barbiturates are not prescribed as often anymore.
According to the Healthline article, the most commonly abused of these drugs are:
- Alprazolam (Xanax)
- Clonazepam (Klonopin)
- Diazepam (Valium)
The three drugs listed above are benzodiazepines. It is increasingly common for people to use them with other drugs, particularly opioids, which is one reason commonly cited for why the rate of people overdosing from these drugs has increased exponentially in recent years.
Stimulants are frequently used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Narcolepsy. Healthline.com and WedMD list the following as commonly abused stimulants:
- Amphetamine (Adderall)\
- Methylphenidate (Ritalin)
People who misuse stimulants may be responding to high stress and long hours at their jobs or in school. Truck drivers, shift workers, and college students abuse these medications more than other categories of people.
Signs of Abuse – Opioids and CNS Depressants
A person misusing any of these drugs may exhibit out of character behaviors, which can signal that they are developing a problem. For people misusing opioids and depressants, the symptoms include:
- Changes in vision
- Difficulty breathing
- Changes in behavior or personality
Signs of Abuse – Stimulants
A person abusing stimulants will also exhibit changes. While some of their symptoms may be the same as for people abusing CNS depressants or opioids, some are different:
- Aggressiveness or hostility
- Reduced appetite
- Weight loss
- Rapid heart rate
- Dilated pupils
- Changes in vision
- Changes in behavior or personality
Abuse Evolves into Addiction
The signs above are the early signs of drug abuse. Users could also develop symptoms of addiction:
- Feeling the need to use regularly—daily or several times a day
- Having intense urges for the drug that block out any other thoughts
- Needing more of the drug to get the same effect
- Maintaining a supply of the drug
- Spending money you cannot afford on the drug
- Cutting back on social, work, or recreational activities because of drug use
- Continuing to use, even though it’s causing problems
- Doing out of character things, such as lying and stealing, to get the drug
- Losing interest in things that were previously enjoyable
- Hiding drug use or its effects from others
- Friends, family, and colleagues complain about changes to personality, mood, etc.
- Sleeping or eating far more or less than usual
- Driving, operating heavy machinery, or doing other risky activities under the influence
- Spending significant time getting, using, or recovering from the effects of the drug
- Failing to stop using when attempting to do so
- Drastic change in appearance—bloodshot eyes, poor hygiene, tremors, bloody noses, and weight gain/loss
- New “friends” who are only around for getting/using drugs
- Doctor shopping
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when stopping
- Financial issues
Children and Teens Are Not Immune
Because prescription medications are kept in many homes, it is easy for minors to misuse them. The Partnership for Drug Free Kids has an initiative called The Medicine Abuse Project, which aims to help parents and caregivers protect children in their home from misusing prescribed medicines. The strategies suggested include:
- Securing medications while they are being used
- Properly disposing of meds that are no longer needed
- Talking to kids about medication abuse
- Getting help if it is suspected a child is abusing medicine
Medication Abuse in College
College students are at particularly high risk for abusing stimulants, as they feel pressure to perform well in school and may use stimulants to increase focus and stay up all night studying or writing papers. It is important for parents of college students to educate them about the risk of addiction with these drugs. In addition, encouraging students to learn better studying and time management skills can help avoid the bad habits that lead to a pattern of cramming at the last minute.
Managing Medications Safely
To safely utilize medicine, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) says:
- Always follow directions.
- Don’t raise, lower, or stop doses without talking with your doctor.
- Don’t crush or break pills, especially if they are time-released.
- Be clear about the drug’s effects on driving and other daily tasks.
- Learn about the effects the medicine can have when taken with alcohol and other prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs.
- Talk honestly with your doctor about any history of substance abuse.
- Never allow other people to use your prescriptions, and don’t take theirs.
Safe Harbor Recovery Center has trained professionals who are ready to support people in recovering from addiction to prescription medications or other drugs.