Prescription drugs have done wonders for patients suffering from any number of pains, illnesses and diseases. There’s no doubt that prescription drugs have changed the face of medicine and we’d be in trouble without them, but these miracle pills also come with a heavy dose of danger if misused and abused. Here are the 8 most abused prescription drugs:
- Stimulants: Stimulants are prescribed to increase alertness, attention and energy in patients with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy and, occasionally, depression. Stimulants increase blood pressure, heart rate and respiration. Prescription stimulants, such as dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine and Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta) work by stimulating the norepinephrine and dopamine chemicals in the brain and increasing dopamine activity. Stimulants often improve mood, relieve anxiety and may induce a sense of euphoria, which makes them highly addictive. Stimulants are commonly abused for recreational purposes and performance enhancement to achieve weight loss and increase energy. To achieve a greater high, stimulant abusers often crush up the pills and snort or inject them. Stimulant abuse can cause serious health consequences, such as rapid or irregular heartbeat, heart failure, delirium and digestive problems.
- Opioids: Opioids are commonly prescribed to treat pain because of their strong analgesic effects, but these powerful drugs can be highly addictive when abused. Opioids include a wide variety of prescription narcotics, including morphine (Kadian, Avinza), codeine, oxycodone (OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet) and other related painkillers. Morphine is typically used before and after surgeries to alleviate severe pain, whereas codeine is prescribed for mild pain and may be used to relieve coughs and diarrhea. Opioids work by attaching to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord and gastrointestinal tract and block the perception of pain. They can cause drowsiness, nausea and constipation, in addition to producing a sense of euphoria by stimulating the pleasure regions of the brain. It’s this euphoric feeling that makes opioids the most popular type of prescription drug to abuse. Many abusers will crush up opioids, such as OxyContin, and then snort or inject them to enhance their high, which consequently, increases their chances of an opioid overdose.
- Barbiturates: Barbiturates are within the family of central nervous system (CNS) depressants, which are prescribed to treat anxiety, tension, epilepsy and sleep disorders and sometimes used as preanesthetics to promote sleep before surgery. CNS depressants are commonly referred to as sedatives and tranquilizers because they slow normal brain function by enhancing the activity of the neurotransmitter gammaaminobutyric acid (GABA). The most common barbiturates prescribed are mephobarbital (Mebaral) and pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal). Barbiturates are commonly abused to counteract the symptoms of other drugs, both prescription and illegal drugs. Abusers may combine barbiturates with medications that cause drowsiness, such as prescription pills, over-the-counter cold and allergy medications and alcohol to achieve a greater high, but doing so increases the risk for slowed heart rate and respiration that could be fatal.
- Benzodiazepines: Benzodiazepines are also within the CNS depressants family. These sedatives are prescribed to treat anxiety, acute stress reactions, panic attacks, convulsions and sleep disorders. Common benzodiazepines, such as diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), chlordiazepoxide HCl (Librium) and estazolam (ProSom), are generally prescribed for short-term relief to prevent abuse and dependence issues. Like barbiturates, benzodiazepines also affect the neurotransmitter gammaaminobutyric acid (GABA) to decrease brain activity and produce a drowsy or calming effect in anxious or restless people. People commonly abuse benzodiazepines to counteract the effects of other drugs. The drowsy, calming feeling of benzodiazepines is often enhanced when abusers take them with other prescription pills, OTC cold and allergy medications, and alcohol, which can lead to a slower heart rate and respiration and result in death. Also, discontinued use of CNS depressants in large doses can lead to dangerous withdrawal symptoms such as seizures.
- Sleep Medications: Prescription sleeping pills fall into the family of CNS depressants and are used to treat insomnia, when people have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or both. The most commonly prescribed sleeping pills to treat sleep disorders are zolpidem (Ambien), zaleplon (Sonata) and eszopiclone (Lunesta). Although these medications have similar side effects as the benzodiazepines, they are called nonbenzodiazepines because they are structurally different on a chemical level. Even though they appear to have a lower risk for addiction and doctors usually prescribe them for two weeks or less, they are frequently abused and can be highly addictive. People often become reliant on sleeping medications because they cannot fall asleep or stay asleep without them. Abusers may also become addicted to the drowsy and calming feeling caused by these sedatives.
- Anabolic Steroids: Anabolic steroids are used to increase muscle and bone mass. Anabolic steroids are legally prescribed by doctors to treat males who produce abnormally low amounts of testosterone so that they do not experience delayed puberty, osteoporosis and impotence. This muscle-building kind of steroid is also used to treat patients with AIDS and other diseases to prevent the loss of lean muscle mass. Anabolic steroids are widely abused by teenagers and athletes of all levels. They can be taken through tablets or capsules, injected directly into the bloodstream, ointments or skin patches and oral preparations. Those who abuse steroids and use them for non-medical purposes have a higher risk of developing short-term and long-term health consequences, such as severe acne, stunted growth, aggression, high blood pressure, liver cysts and cancer and much more.
- Muscle Relaxers: Muscle relaxers are prescribed to treat acute muscle problems and chronic pain that cause painful muscle spasms. They can also be administered to treat pain from fibromyalgia, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy. Baclofen, Tizanidine and Zanaflex are commonly prescribed to reduce spasticity at the level of the spinal cord, and certain benzodiazepines, like Valium, may be used to relieve muscle spasms. Muscle relaxers work by reducing muscle tone and relaxing tenseness, while others affect skeletal muscle fibers and nerves. Muscle relaxers offer temporary pain relief, but do not heal the problem. Much like other painkillers, muscle relaxers can be addictive because they offer pain relief, pleasure and a euphoric calmness. Those who abuse muscle relaxers may take more than the prescribed amount and mix it with other medications or alcohol to enhance their high.
- Fentanyl: Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that has the same painkilling benefits of most opioids, but is more potent than morphine. In a class of its own, fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic, and Sublimaze) is generally prescribed to patients with chronic, severe pain and can be given to cancer patients. Due to its strong analgesic benefits, fentanyl is also a commonly abused drug. Like other opioids, fentanyl binds to the brain’s opiate receptors and work by blocking the perception of pain. As dopamine levels in the brain increase, users feel a sense of euphoria and calmness. People who abuse fentanyl will often mix the prescription drug with heroin, cocaine or other illegal drugs to amplify their high. Fentanyl abuse and addiction is accompanied by several short-term and long-term health consequences, such as respiratory depression and arrest, nausea, confusion, sedation, unconsciousness and coma.