Prescription drug abuse is an issue that is just as dangerous as illegal drug abuse. Prescription drugs are usually given after an injury or surgery but can have highly addictive properties that can damage the long-term health of people who use them.
Prescription drugs are thought of as perfectly safe but in reality, can have dangerous effects. As they are prescribed by a doctor, many remain unaware that they have a problem with prescription medications.
Types of Prescription Drugs
There are many prescription drugs available that carry the risk of addiction. Some are prescribed to treat pain, and others are used to treat anxiety and other mental health conditions. The most commonly abused prescription drugs include:
- Stimulants – stimulants help boost alertness and energy levels and are commonly misused due to the pleasurable effects they have on the brain. They are commonly prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and many people take them due to the fact that they increase mental alertness and energy. Stimulant abuse boosts dopamine levels in the brain, which produces euphoric effects and can be incredibly addictive. Stimulants that are misused include Ritalin, Adderall, and Concerta.
- Opioids – created for pain medication, opioid painkillers produce a euphoric effect that can be highly addictive. They work by releasing high levels of dopamine, so people feel at ease instead of in pain. Opioid medications include fentanyl, codeine, tramadol, and oxycodone. There is also a high risk of opioid overdose if taken with central nervous system (CNS) depressants such as Xanax or Valium.
- Benzodiazepines – also known as tranquilisers and sedatives, benzodiazepines are prescribed for those struggling with anxiety. As CNS depressants, they slow down the brain and produce a calming effect that can be incredibly addictive and lead to prescription drug misuse. Types of benzodiazepines include Valium, Xanax, and Ambien.
Other prescription drugs that may be abused in the UK include antidepressants, sleeping pills, and weight loss pills; however, this is less common than other forms of drug abuse.
Prescription drug abuse is rising due to doctors writing many more prescriptions and the prevalence of online pharmacies. More drugs are available for people to take, and because they are available on prescription, some may think they are safer than illegal drugs. However, this is not the case – prescription drug abuse can still be life-threatening.
Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse
The symptoms of prescription drug abuse vary depending on the substance being abused. When prescription opioids are being misused, symptoms can include:
- Slowed breathing rate
The signs of benzodiazepine abuse include:
- Slurred speech
- Memory issues
- Unsteady walking
The symptoms of stimulant abuse can include:
- Increased alertness
- Reduced appetite
Signs and symptoms of unhealthy prescription drug use that are applicable to all types of addiction include:
- Seeking prescriptions from multiple doctors
- Mood swings and hostility towards friends and loved ones
- ‘Losing’ prescriptions, so the doctor provides another
- Sleep disorders such as insomnia
- Withdrawing from family and friends to hide their drug abuse
- Losing interest in work, school, and other hobbies
Those who consistently abuse prescription drugs may develop a high tolerance to them. Their body gets used to having the substance in its system, so they need to take higher doses of medication to achieve the same effect.
Polydrug abuse occurs when people use two types of drugs simultaneously. Other drugs used with prescription medications include alcohol, sleep medications, and other prescription drugs. Alcohol is particularly dangerous when used in conjunction with prescription drugs and raises the risk of a fatal overdose.
As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol is particularly lethal when combined with benzodiazepines. Combining the two raises the risk of respiratory failure and coma. Mixing alcohol with opioid painkillers may also lead to stomach bleeding, liver damage, and lower blood pressure.
Causes of Addiction
Anyone can become addicted to the medications they are prescribed. However, several factors can influence the chances of becoming addicted, such as:
- A history of addiction
- Having family members with substance abuse disorders
- A history of trauma
- Underlying mental health conditions
Prescription drug abuse can also be worsened for those living in homes with easier access to prescription drugs, such as having medications in the bathroom. Some people take prescription drugs, particularly stimulants, to help them study more effectively and focus on school or work. While this may start as a temporary method to work more effectively, people can quickly become addicted due to the nature of the medication.
Some people abuse prescription drugs to cope with their mental health. Also known as a dual diagnosis, substance abuse can make mental health conditions worse and vice versa. Prescription drug abuse can increase the risk for underlying mental health disorders, and many who abuse prescription painkillers are at a higher risk of depression than those who do not.
The most common co-occurring mental health conditions with prescription drug abuse are depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Other conditions that may occur alongside substance abuse include schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD). In order for both drug addiction and mental health conditions to be treated effectively, they must be targeted individually. Treating mental health can help to get to the root causes of addiction and reduce the chance of relapse.
Consequences of Prescription Drug Addiction
There are severe physical and mental health effects caused by long-term prescription drug abuse. Abusing prescription medications can lead to consequences including:
- Heart failure
- Dangerously high body temperature
- Fatal withdrawal symptoms
Continually using prescription medication can alter dopamine production within the brain. Dopamine is produced artificially when taking prescription drugs, and massive amounts flood the brain and trigger addictive tendencies. Constant use of prescription medications can cause the brain to adjust to the increase in dopamine levels, and when a person tries to stop using drugs, they experience severe withdrawal symptoms.
Alongside this, toxic levels of prescription medications can damage the grey matter of the brain located in the prefrontal cortex, the section of the brain associated with self-control. As brain activity is impaired, those dependent on prescription drugs cannot rationally consider the consequences of their actions.
Preventing Prescription Drug Abuse
Anyone can develop a dependence on prescription drugs, even if their doctor has approved them. There are several ways to prevent the risk of becoming addicted to prescription stimulants:
- Never take anyone else’s prescription – even if they take the same medication as you, do not take any medicine apart from your own.
- Ensure that you take the correct dose of medication – confirm with your doctor how much you should be taking.
- Know what your medication does and monitor any side effects – if you are worried about anything, contact your doctor.
- Check with your doctor regularly to ensure that your medication is working – if you feel that the medication is not right for you, your doctor may be able to find a replacement or offer an alternative treatment.
However, even those who take prescription drugs for a valid medical condition are still at risk of developing an addiction.
Young People and Prescription Drugs
Young adults abuse prescription medication for recreation purposes. Codeine, an opioid medication prescribed for moderate pain, is the drug most commonly abused by teens. Many abuse these drugs as they think they are safer than street drugs, or they may take them to cope with symptoms of a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety.
If you take prescription medications, take measures to prevent your child from accessing them. Keep them in a locked medicine cabinet or secret location, and make sure they know the dangers of taking drugs that have not been explicitly prescribed for them.
Treatment Options for Drug Abuse
For those who are struggling with prescription drug abuse, there is treatment available. Some people may think that prescription drug addiction is much harder to treat than other forms of addiction, but this is not the case. The difficulty arises from recognising prescription drug abuse, as many people hide it or do not even realise they have an addiction.
Finding the right treatment is essential. There are multiple options that may fit your lifestyle and needs, including:
- Inpatient treatment – also known as residential treatment, people in inpatient treatment programmes receive twenty-four-hour care in a specialised facility, usually for a period of around twelve weeks.
- Outpatient treatment – outpatient treatment allows people to benefit from treatment while maintaining their daily routines and responsibilities. People are able to integrate all of the lessons they learn in treatment from the first day, and it is generally more affordable than residential treatment.
Withdrawing from prescription drugs can come with many side effects. Withdrawal symptoms vary depending on which drug is being abused. Withdrawing from CNS depressants such as Valium or Xanax include:
- Muscle pain
- Trouble sleeping
Withdrawing from opioid medications can induce symptoms such as:
- Digestive issues
- Intense drug cravings
Withdrawal symptoms of stimulants can include:
- Extreme fatigue
In extreme cases, abruptly stopping taking prescription drugs can have severe side effects, causing strokes, coma and even death. When receiving treatment for prescription drug addiction, medically assisted detox is the safest way to remove the substance from your system and mitigates the risk for severe withdrawal symptoms.
Prescription drug addiction is highly dangerous and can have many adverse effects on brain activity and body function. However, as these medications are prescribed by a doctor, some people may think they are safe, and there is no risk for addiction. This is not the case – prescription drugs can be fatal.
If you are concerned about someone you love, contact Animo Healthcare today. Our team of experts specialise in outpatient treatment that allows people to carry on with their lives while receiving specialist addiction treatment.