Prescription medication is not always taken responsibly for the treatment of a medical condition. A steady increase in its non-medicinal use is common in the US, and there is also cause for concern for over-the-counter medications.
Also called non-prescription drugs, over-the-counter (OTC) medicines range from cough syrup to acne medicine and weight loss products. Usually, these are obtained from a pharmacist and are considered safe and effective for the general public. People can obtain them without first seeking treatment from a doctor or a health care professional. But these medicines do come with possible side effects, interactions with other drugs, and dangers when used in excessive doses.
The use of prescribed medication in a way that is not recommended by a doctor or health care practitioner can escalate to addiction and abuse and may continue despite negative consequences. Very similar to street drugs, prescription drug abuse can be very harmful and easily lead to injury or overdose.
People often abuse prescription drugs because they believe it will help them study more effectively, have more fun, or fit in socially. Prescription and OTC medications are usually readily available within a household and are much more accessible than street drugs.
Children may steal drugs from the medicine cabinet at home rather than having to buy any, while adults may use someone else's prescription. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 4.4% of 12th graders reported misusing prescription drugs in 2021.
Another reason for prescription drug abuse is the fact that people believe these drugs are safer since they are prescribed by a doctor. But this is not the case. When the drug is prescribed for someone else or mixed with other prescription medications it can be very dangerous.
Some people become addicted to medications prescribed for their medical conditions, such as painkillers from a doctor after undergoing surgery. Sometimes, physical dependence turns into abuse due to the physical dependency that has developed from taking medicine over a long time.
While every person reacts differently to medications, the following are some of the general signs of prescription drug addiction:
Any prescription medication can be abused. However, there are three classes of medication that are most commonly misused.
Painkillers, also known as opioids, opiates, or narcotics make up one class. These are used to treat pain, and some contain additional ingredients. Examples include morphine, codeine, hydrocodone (known as Vicodin or Lortab), oxycodone (known as OxyContin or Percocet), and meperidine (known as Demerol).
Central nervous system depressants are the second category. CNS depressants slow down our brain activity and include hypnotics, sedatives, and tranquilizers. These are given to treat anxiety, panic attacks, tension, and sleep disorders. Examples include alprazolam (known as Xanax), diazepam (known as Valium), phenobarbital (known as Luminal), or zolpidem (known as Ambien).
Another category is stimulants. This type of medication is most often prescribed for the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They are also used to treat narcolepsy and increase attention, energy, and alertness. Examples of stimulants that are commonly abused include methylphenidate (known as Ritalin or Concerta), and dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine).
Medicines abused without a prescription can be as dangerous as illicit drugs.
The most common risk of prescription drug abuse is physical dependence. Prescription drug abuse activates the brain's reward system, making a person want more of the drug for its effect. Over time, the body becomes accustomed to the presence of the drug and will need more of it to achieve the same effects, known as tolerance. This can cause an addiction to develop.
Another risk of prescription drug abuse is the increased likelihood of dangerous activity. A person is more likely to commit a crime or have an accident when they are abusing drugs, whether they got them from the medicine cabinet or the street.
As with most drug abuse, prescription drug abuse carries serious health risks and can have serious medical consequences. Emergency room visits and overdose deaths associated with prescription drug misuse have increased. This is because large doses, combined with other prescription drugs or recreational drugs, or with certain over-the-counter medicines can be extremely dangerous. The consumption of alcohol places a person at a dramatically higher risk of overdose.
Each class of prescription medications comes with its own risks. In general, high doses of opioids can cause a slowed breathing rate, potentially stop breathing, low blood pressure, coma, and death. An average of 44 people died every day in the US from overdoses involving prescription opioids in 2020.
About 5.1 million people in the US reported misusing prescription stimulants in 2020. Too much of a stimulant can lead to an irregular heartbeat and a dangerously high body temperature. A person could also become aggressive or paranoid. ADHD medications may cause heart failures or seizures, and the risks are increased when stimulants are combined with other medicines – including some OTC medications.
Abuse of CNS depressants, such as anti-anxiety medications and sedatives, comes with the risk of memory problems. Additionally, abruptly stopping or reducing them can also lead to seizures. CNS depressants mixed with prescription painkillers, over-the-counter allergy or cold medicines, or alcohol can severely slow down a person's breathing and heartbeat, and could even cause death.
Over-the-counter medication may be obtained from a pharmacist, but reading the 'drug facts' label on OTC products is also required for their safe use; despite not requiring a prescription, these drugs still carry risks. OTC products used to treat allergies and colds contain substances that can cause serious harm if abused. At the same time, cough syrups are equally dangerous when drunk to get high.
Classes of OTC drugs commonly abused are antihistamines, cough medicines, codeine-containing products, analgesics, hypnotics, laxatives, and decongestants. While some OTC medications, such as antihistamines or cough syrup, may be abused for euphoria, others are not. Laxatives, for example, are abused for weight loss.
Dextromethorphan, a common ingredient in OTC cough and cold medications, can cause hallucinations. While popular among young people, OTC medications like these can be very dangerous when combined with stimulant abuse. Dangerously high blood pressure comes from combining common decongestants with stimulants, and so does an irregular heartbeat. High doses of cough syrup can also cause vomiting, a fast heart rate, and in rare cases, brain damage.
Some cold medicines are in a more restricted class of OTC drugs and usually require a signature. An example is the popular over-the-counter cold medicine, pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), which clears up a stuffy nose but is also used as an ingredient in illegal meth.
Prescription drug misuse can be very dangerous and may require professional help. Suffering from addiction can severely affect your life and the lives of loved ones around you.
If you are seeking treatment for prescription drug abuse or addiction, Cirque Lodge is here to help. As one of the most advanced and exclusive drug and alcohol addiction treatment centers, we can equip you with the knowledge and tools to overcome physical dependence, as well as support for psychological dependence.
We know that addiction to prescription drugs or over-the-counter medicines is personal and that the recovery process is individual. That is why Cirque Lodge can design a treatment program specifically tailored to meet your needs. Our caring and compassionate staff uses a holistic approach to ensure that you have physical, emotional, and mental health and can achieve long-term sobriety.
Cirque lodge provides an enriching rehabilitation experience in a serene mountain setting, allowing you to relax and focus all your energy on your recovery journey with the help of an expert addiction treatment team.