Prescription and OTC drugs are often abused in one or more of the following ways:
- Taking a medication that has been prescribed for somebody else. There are dangers of sharing medications that were intended by others, such as family members or friends.
- Taking a drug in a higher dose or in another way than it was prescribed. Most prescription drugs are taken orally in tablet for, but some abusers crush tablets and snort or inject the powder, which increases the entry of the drug into the bloodstream and brain, which increases its effects.
- Taking a drug for another reason than as prescribed. All drug types can produce pleasurable effects at various amounts, so taking them to get high is one of the main reasons people abuse them.
How Prescription and OTC Drugs Affect the Brain
When taken as prescribed, prescription and OTC drugs safely treat specific conditions. However, when they are taken in different amounts or when there are no symptoms, they may affect the brain in ways similar to illicit (illegal) drugs.
When abused, various stimulants prescription depressants produce sedating or calming effects. When taken in very high doses, they can produce similar out-of-body experiences. When these classes of drugs are abused – directly or indirectly – they cause a pleasurable increase in the brain’s reward pathway. Repeatedly seeking to experience such feelings can lead to addiction.
Other Health Effects of Prescription and OTC Drugs
Opioids can produce drowsiness, constipation, and – depending upon the amount taken – depressed breathing. The depressed breathing makes opioids very dangerous, especially when they are snorted or injected, or combined with other drugs or alcohol.
The Prescription Opioid Overdose Epidemic
More than 2 million people in the U.S. suffer from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers. The terrible results of this trend include overdose deaths, which have more than quadrupled in the past 15 years. While the causes are complex, they often include over-prescription of pain medications.
Stimulants can have strong effects on the cardiovascular system. Taking high doses of them can dangerously raise body temperature, cause irregular heartbeat, or even heart failure or seizures. Also, some stimulants can lead to hostility or feelings of paranoia.
CNS depressants slow down brain activity and can cause sleepiness and loss of coordination. Continued use can lead to physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms on discontinuing use.
Dextromethorphan can cause impaired motor function, numbness, nausea or vomiting, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. Occasionally, hypoxic brain damage – caused by respiratory depression and a lack of oxygen to the brain has occurred due to the combination of dextromethorphan with decongestants are often found in the medication.
All of these drugs have the potential for addiction, and this risk is amplified when they are abused. Also, as with other drugs, abuse of prescription and OTC drugs can alter a person’s judgement and decision making, leading to dangerous behaviors such as unsafe sex and drugged driving.
Prescription opioid pain medications such as Oxycontin and Vicodin can have effects similar to heroin when taken in doses or in ways other than prescribed, and research now suggests that abuse of these drugs may actually open the door to heroin abuse. Nearly half of young people who inject heroin surveyed in three recent studies reported abusing prescription opioids before starting to use heroin. Some individuals reported taking up heroin because it is cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription opioids.
Prescription drug misuse has become a large public health problem, because misuse can lead to addiction, and even overdose deaths.
For teens, it is a growing problem:
- After marijuana and alcohol, prescription drugs are the most commonly misused substances by Americans age 14 and older.
- Teens misuse prescription drugs for a number of reasons, such as to get high, to stop pain, or because they think it will help them with school work.
- Many teens get prescription drugs they misuse from friends and relatives, sometimes without the person knowing.
- Boys and girls tend to misuse some types of prescription drugs for different reasons. For example, boys are more likely to misuse prescription stimulants to get high, while girls tend to misuse them to stay alert or to lose weight.
Many of these young people also report that crushing prescription opioid pills to snort or inject the powder form report that they started their involvement into drug use that way.
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