Prescription misuse includes taking prescription medications that do not belong to you or taking prescription medications in a different dose than prescribed to you. Prescription misuse has resulted in a massive increase in emergency room visits, lethal overdoses and substance use disorders. The most common prescriptions that are misused include opioids, sedatives and stimulants.
Prescription use disorder can affect anyone regardless of your ethnicity, age, social class or occupation. Busy moms who feel overwhelmed by chasing their kids around may use Xanax® to take the edge off. Athletes may use performance-enhancing drugs in the hope they will become stronger and faster. High school and college students may use stimulants such as Adderall® to stay up all night and cram for a test.
Career-oriented professionals may use opioids to escape the reality of their stressful job. Teenagers may break into their parent’s medicine cabinet to take a few pills to a party for experimentation and testing the limits. Regardless of the age group or the reason, prescription pills can be hazardous and addictive if they end up in the wrong hands or taken for non-medical uses.
Prescription Drugs Statistics
According to statistics, more individuals use controlled prescription drugs than cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine combined. That puts prescription drugs second behind marijuana when it comes to illicit drug use. Prescription opioid drugs contribute to 32% of all opioid overdose deaths in the United States. Unfortunately, there may be a misconception by individuals who believe that prescription drugs are much safer than illegal street drugs because a doctor prescribes them. Prescription medications can be even more dangerous when mixed with alcohol or illicit drugs, and can result in life-threatening consequences if an individual chooses to operate a vehicle while under the influence.
Pill parties are common among teenagers and adolescents as a way to share and mix different types of prescription pills to see the effects. These pill parties are commonly called “skittle parties.” Teenagers may raid their parent’s medicine cabinets, adding random prescription pills that are mixed blindly and shared with friends. Kids generally view this as a cheap and accessible (and sometimes safe) way to get high.
Types of Misused Prescription Medications
Opioids: Otherwise known as prescription painkillers, opioids or narcotics are used to treat chronic severe pain. They are one of the most overprescribed medication classes among healthcare providers. Prescription opioids include Lortab®, morphine, Percocet,® methadone, codeine, Vicodin® and fentanyl. Heroin is an illegal non-prescription opioid that is sold on the street. More than 191 million opioid prescriptions were dispensed to patients in the U.S. in 2017. Opioids can result in life-threatening overdoses and because they have severe withdrawal syndromes, they are very addictive.
Sedatives/tranquilizers: Sedatives and tranquilizers are central nervous system depressants. They slow brain activity and can elicit a sense of euphoria. Sleeping pills, benzodiazepines and barbiturates are all classified as sedatives/hypnotics. Prescription sleeping pills such as Lunesta® and Ambien® are known as “z-drugs” because they help induce sleep. Sleeping pills are considered non-benzodiazepine hypnotics and are prescribed for short-term use (less than two weeks). Prescription sleeping pills have high addiction potential and are deemed just as addictive and dangerous as benzodiazepines if taken for longer than prescribed. Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Ativan®, are prescribed for anxiety disorders, seizures, alcohol withdrawal and insomnia and are generally prescribed for very short-term use. Both overdose and withdrawal for this class of drugs can be life-threatening, and therefore professional treatment is needed for those who develop a substance use disorder.
Stimulants: Sometimes called “uppers,” stimulants temporarily increase energy and alertness. Illegal stimulants include cocaine and amphetamines. Adderall® (dextroamphetamine and amphetamine), Concerta® (methylphenidate) and Ritalin (methylphenidate) are prescription stimulants that contain amphetamines. These medications are used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. However, high school and college students commonly abuse them to improve their academic performance. Individuals may also mix Adderall with alcohol, a common concoction at parties. When abused, these prescription stimulants are often swallowed or crushed and snorted. Common street names for prescription stimulants include Vitamin R, the smart drug and Skippy.
Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Medication Intoxication
Depending on the specific prescription medication, signs and symptoms of intoxication will differ.
Signs and symptoms of stimulant intoxication:
- Increased alertness
- Increased energy and restlessness
- Behavior changes or aggression
- Rapid or rambling speech
- Delusions and hallucinations
- Impaired judgment
- Nasal congestion and damage to the mucous membrane of the nose (if snorting drugs)
- Depression as the drug wears off
Signs and symptoms of opioid intoxication:
- Pinpoint pupils
- Excessive drowsiness
- Slurred speech
- Respiratory depression (shallow and short breathing)
- Track marks on skin or fresh puncture wounds
- Mood swings
Signs and symptoms of sedative/tranquilizer intoxication:
- Lack of coordination
- Blurred vision
- Slurred speech
- Slowed breathing
Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Medication Withdrawal
Benzodiazepines, sleeping pills, opioids and stimulants can cause withdrawal symptoms depending on the length of abuse. Withdrawing from benzodiazepines can be life-threatening. A slow taper of medications can be given to ease withdrawal symptoms, and therefore professional treatment is recommended for anyone who is at risk of withdrawal from prescription medications. Depending on the prescription medication, withdrawal symptoms can occur in as little as a few hours after the last use and last up to two weeks.
When to Seek Help for Prescription Medication Use Disorder
Seek treatment for prescription medication use disorder if you display any of these signs:
- Forging prescriptions
- Stealing prescriptions
- Doctor shopping to gain more prescription medications
- Taking prescription medications in ways that are not prescribed
- Tolerance (the need for a high dose to produce the same effects)
- Hiding your prescription medicine use disorder from friends, coworkers or family
- Engaging in illegal activity
- Mixing prescription medications with alcohol or illicit drugs
- Academic decline/poor work performance
- Sleep disturbance
- Weight loss
- Craving prescription medications
- Violent behavior
- Strained/broken relationships
Treatment Options for Prescription Medication Abuse
Opioids, benzodiazepines, sleeping pills and stimulants are addictive and can produce withdrawal effects. Professional treatment is recommended if you are misusing prescription medications. Detoxification is the first step in treatment, and medications can be given to ease the withdrawal side effects until the drug of abuse is cleared from your body. Depending on the abused prescription medication, detoxification could take as little as three days or up to two weeks. Once you are out of the acute withdrawal phase, a therapist will work with you to help manage future cravings. The therapist will also teach you healthy coping mechanisms to overcome any underlying triggers associated with your prescription medicine use disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectal behavior therapy (DBT), family therapy and interpersonal therapy are all psychotherapy approaches used in substance use disorder treatment. Your treatment team will also work to diagnose any underlying mental health disorders that could have been triggering your substance use disorder.