Prescription Drugs

People often think that prescription drugs are safe because they are used in healthcare, but prescription drugs have risks even when used as directed and can be just as dangerous as street drugs when misused or abused. It is illegal to use prescription drugs in a way that is not prescribed by a doctor.

What is prescription drug misuse and abuse?

  • Taking a prescription medication in a way other than instructed, even if it is your own prescription.
  • Getting and using someone else’s prescription medication, even for a medical reason.
  • Mixing prescription drugs with other medicines, or substances, such as alcohol.
  • Taking a prescription medication to get high.

Without talking to a doctor, you won’t know how a prescription drug will affect you.

The dangers of taking drugs that have not been prescribed to you

The Risks of Prescription Drug Misuse and Abuse

Prescription medications can be helpful when used correctly under the guidance of a healthcare provider, but misuse can lead to serious risks for a person’s physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Misusing any type of drug that alters judgment can cause you do risky things you wouldn’t normally do, like having unprotected sex or driving under the influence. Using drugs can lead to poor grades, worse performance in sports, and bad relationships with friends and family.

Each class of prescription drugs affects the brain and body differently. The three most commonly misused prescription drugs are Opioids, Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants and Stimulants.

  Opioids Depressants Stimulants
Examples Vicodin, OxyContin, or codeine Valium and Xanax Adderall and Ritalin
Medical Uses Used to treat pain or relieve coughs or diarrhea Used to treat anxiety, tension, panic attacks, and sleep disorders Used for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Consequences of Abuse
  • drowsiness
  • confusion
  • nausea
  • constipation
  • euphoria
  • slowed breathing

Opioid misuse can cause slowed breathing, which can cause hypoxia, a condition that results when too little oxygen reaches the brain. Hypoxia can have short- and long-term psychological and neurological effects, including coma, permanent brain damage, or death.

Researchers are investigating the long-term effects of opioid addiction on the brain.

  • slurred speech
  • poor concentration
  • confusion
  • headache
  • light-headedness
  • dizziness
  • dry mouth
  • problems with movement and memory
  • lowered blood pressure
  • slowed breathing

If a person takes CNS depressants long term, they might need larger doses to achieve therapeutic effects. Continued use can also lead to dependence and withdrawal when use is abruptly reduced or stopped. Suddenly stopping can also lead to harmful consequences like seizures.

  • increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • increased breathing
  • decreased blood flow
  • increased blood sugar
  • opened-up breathing passages

At high doses, prescription stimulants can lead to a dangerously high body temperature, an irregular heartbeat, heart failure, and seizures.


Opioids

Examples

Vicodin, OxyContin, or codeine

Medical Uses

Used to treat pain or relieve coughs or diarrhea

Consequences of Abuse

  • drowsiness
  • confusion
  • nausea
  • constipation
  • euphoria
  • slowed breathing

Opioid misuse can cause slowed breathing, which can cause hypoxia, a condition that results when too little oxygen reaches the brain. Hypoxia can have short- and long-term psychological and neurological effects, including coma, permanent brain damage, or death.

Researchers are investigating the long-term effects of opioid addiction on the brain.


Depressants

Examples

Valium and Xanax

Medical Uses

Used to treat anxiety, tension, panic attacks, and sleep disorders

Consequences of Abuse

  • slurred speech
  • poor concentration
  • confusion
  • headache
  • light-headedness
  • dizziness
  • dry mouth
  • problems with movement and memory
  • lowered blood pressure
  • slowed breathing

If a person takes CNS depressants long term, they might need larger doses to achieve therapeutic effects. Continued use can also lead to dependence and withdrawal when use is abruptly reduced or stopped. Suddenly stopping can also lead to harmful consequences like seizures.


Stimulants

Examples

Adderall and Ritalin

Medical Uses

Used for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Consequences of Abuse

  • increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • increased breathing
  • decreased blood flow
  • increased blood sugar
  • opened-up breathing passages

At high doses, prescription stimulants can lead to a dangerously high body temperature, an irregular heartbeat, heart failure, and seizures.

Prescription drugs can affect the brain and how it works. Opioids, stimulants and depressants can cause physical dependence that could lead to addiction.

Don't risk it - Only take pills prescribed to you

What if someone I know needs help?

If you think a friend or family member has a problem with drugs, you can talk to someone you trust, like a parent, coach, or teacher. Treatment is available and people can get better. If you, a family member, or friend are in crisis and need to speak with someone now, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-272-TALK. They cover a lot of issues (not just suicide) and can help put you in touch with someone close by.

What do I do if I am prescribed a medicine from my doctor or dentist?

  • Talk about your medical history and any medications you’re taking. It might not be safe to take certain prescriptions with some other medicines.
  • Talk about the risks and consider asking if there are different treatment options that could work.
  • Tell the doctor or dentist about any substance use disorders or addiction in your family. This will help the dentist decide if certain prescriptions, such as opioids, are safe for you.
  • Take the prescription drug exactly the way they were prescribed, and never use them for any other reason. Never share medications with anyone else.
  • Safely dispose of unused or expired medicine.

Safe Disposal

Make sure to properly store and safely dispose of any unused, unwanted, or expired medications. This will decrease the opportunity for anyone to abuse these drugs. Unless stated on the packaging, you should not pour medicine down the drain or flush down the toilet. Expired or leftover prescriptions can often be returned to a pharmacy or police station for proper disposal.

Visit takebackday.dea.gov to locate a collection site to safely dispose of your medication.

For more information, visit The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)