Prescription Drugs

Prescription Drugs

Prescription drug addiction caught media attention in 2010 with the rise of Ambien abuse, though it has been wreaking havoc for decades. Rx abuse is a particularly dangerous epidemic because of the stigma surrounding pills. Many people believe that prescription pills are not as dangerous as heroin, meth, or the like because they are prescribed by a doctor. That is unfortunately not the case; in fact, quite the opposite is true — data reports show that as of as of 2012, more people die of prescription drug overdoses a year than heroin, meth, and, cocaine combined.

NEW: Download and print our Prescription Drug Abuse Brochure

What Are the Most Common Types of Prescription Drugs?

When we say prescription drugs, in the context of addiction, we are talking about one of three classifications of medications:

The nation as a whole has seen a three fold increase in prescription drug addicted babies (2000-2010), but in some states, that number is much higher.

OPIOIDS, or painkillers, which are often prescribed to treat chronic pain. The most common forms of opioids include OxyContin (oxycodone), Vicodin (hydrocodone), and Demerol (meperidine).

Opioids prevent the brain from receiving messages of pain from affected parts of the body by binding with opioid receptors. Addiction to opioids is highly likely, mainly because the user is initially reliant on them to alleviate excruciating pain. It is this immediate need for opioids that can lead to a bigger problem. A user will continue to use them for a longer period in the case of chronic pains, while higher dosages would be required for major injury or surgery. This can cause users to become addicted without even realizing it. Withdrawal symptoms include nausea, vomiting, pain, fatigue, and depression. The best way to avoid addiction is to wean oneself of their opioid usage with the help of a medical professional.

CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM DEPRESSANTS are mainly comprised of benzodiazepines, a medication class that is often prescribed to patients to treat anxiety disorders and sleep deprivation. The most common benzodiazepines are Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (pentobarbital diazepam), and Ambien (zolpidem).

To avoid risk of addiction, take only what is prescribed to you or the smallest dosage with minimal frequency.

CNS depressants speed up activity of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA-A), causing brain activity to slow down and the user to become indolent. Prolonged abuse of benzodiazepines such as Valium or Xanax reduces the effectiveness of the drug due to brain adaptability. As a result, the user would need a higher and higher dosage for the same effect. If too many depressants are ingested, the central nervous system could potentially regress, resulting in a diminished response of brain activity. To avoid risk of addiction, take only what is prescribed to you or the smallest dosage with minimal frequency.

PSYCHOSTIMULANTS, as the name suggests, cause high alertness, attention, and energy by increasing activity in the brain. They are generally prescribed to treat such illnesses as ADD and ADHD. Recently psychostimulants have been getting a high amount of media attention due to the spike in Adderall usage, as well as controversial changes in the DSM V. The most common forms of psychostimulants are Ritalin (methylphenidate), the above mentioned Adderall (amphetamines), as well as common over the counter diet pills.

The majority of psychostimulants affect the natural chemistry of the brain by increasing the activity of dopamine and norepinephrine. These two neurotransmitters are vital in regulating attention, behaviour, and pleasure which are directly related to the mesolimbic reward pathway.

Negative medical effects of psychostimulants include extremely high body temperature and irregular heartbeats. Over usage can sometimes even result in heart failure or seizures. Prolonged use of these prescription pills leads to aggressive or paranoid behavior. Psychostimulants are the most abused prescription drugs (Ritalin and Adderall are notoriously shared among students of high-performing secondary schools and colleges ). Those who take psychostimulants–Ritalin in particular–for recreational use are at risk for Ritalin toxicity (or “toxic psychosis”). Furthermore because ritalin and adderall are prescribed for the individual patient, a user who obtains them second hand, may be getting a stronger (or weaker) dose than their body can handle. This in turn will affect such factors as how long the drug stays in the recreational users body.


For nearly a decade, data has shown harrowing statistics in newborns that are addicted to opioids. The nation as a whole has seen a three fold increase in prescription drug addicted babies (2000-2010), but in some states, that number is much higher. Kentucky is perhaps the leader with an unfathomable 2,400% increase. This unfortunate phenomenon is much like the crack baby epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s; however low-income minority families are no longer the sole culprit.

In Washington state, drug statistics show that opioids are the highest used drugs amongst students (it is no secret that Adderall is abused for studying purposes as are Ritalin and Diet pills for the same purposes) as well as it is homemakers. This information, which is relatively consistent across the nation, is pointing to another precedent set by these drug, namely the demographics.


According to 2010 drug admissions data, nearly 75% of the caucasian population abuses opioids, with women being the primary users. Useage is also noticeably higher across the board regardless of employment status (though, let it be noted, that usage is higher among those who are unemployed and those not in the labor force, e.g. students, prisoners, and the homeless.).

Prescription drugs are readily available to almost any teen, and dealers are lurking in their own home. The medicine cabinet has since become a one-stop shopping area for any kid looking to get high (or looking to make a quick buck), but this sharp spike in usage has also been marked by higher fatality rates amongst teens and young adults. Part of this burden is shared by the parents of prescription drug-abusing teens, many of whom, according to national studies, believe psychostimulants aka Ritalin and adderall, improve a students performance even if they are not diagnosed with ADHD.

Signs of Addiction

Because prescription drugs cover a wider variety of symptoms, and have a wide variety of mind altering properties, signs of addiction vary depending on which class of drugs are being abused:

poor conditioning
decreased breathing rate
low blood pressure
sweating spells
involuntary rapid eye movement
unsteady walking
loss of coordination
lowed reflexes
respiratory depression
poor judgement
slurred speech
bizarre, erratic, and sometimes violent behavior
increased heart rate and blood pressure
weight loss
loss of appetite

Long-term effects of prescription drug abuse include:

liver damage
dry skin
frequent infections
increased tolerance leading to high risk of coma or death
teeth and gum problems
hearing impairment
impaired sexual function
memory loss
chronic sleep problems
respiratory depression/ arrest
high risk of suicide
muscle weakness
increased risk of coma or death
permanent damage to blood vessels of heart and brain
liver, kidney, and lung damage
strong psychological dependence
malnutrition, weight loss
increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and epilepsy
destruction of tissues in nose (snorted)
respiratory damage (smoked)
irregular heartbeat

In addition to this, the internet is filled with tutorials and information on a wide array of topics, even seemingly over specified ones such as how to quit snorting Ritalin.

Caution, Prevention, and Hope

The good news is that media attention has sparked public outcry and has led to recognition and treatment options across the nation. Though some states like Oregon, one of the nation’s highest ranking areas for prescription abuse, have some roadblocks ahead of them, awareness is the first step. Advocates of drug safety are turning up the heat on drug-free action urging institutions like the FDA to properly label the effects of such commonly used drugs like diet pills.

With all of the knowledge that is out there, and all the strides that are being made, it is not safe to quit abusing prescription drugs without the help of proper medical care and mental health professionals. Prescription medications are extremely potent drugs. When abused they affect the central nervous system, respiratory tract, and the liver. These drugs also cause high levels of tolerance in the Rx addict meaning that withdrawal is a particularly delicate and painful process, namely for the taxation of the aforementioned parts of the body, not to mention that by their nature and purpose, prescription drugs are psychologically addictive as well (recovering addicts have been known to develop depression and OCD).

Detoxing from prescription pain medication has been known to cause flu-like symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and sweating, as well as some other serious matters such as bone pain and respiratory failure. The best way to avoid addiction is obvious: to avoid drug use altogether; however unlike street drugs, there is a medical purpose for their usage that, prior to the onset of addiction, may be relevant. In this case, the best way reduce your risk of addiction is to follow your prescription dosages to the letter and speak to your medical professional candidly about your usage.

The best way to protect children and young adults from finding pills in the home is to simply flush them down the toilet or to discard them at a designated facility.