What are prescription drugs?
Also known as:
Opioids: Happy Pills, Hillbilly Heroin, OC, Oxy, Oxycotton, Percs, and Vikes
Depressants: A-minus, Barbs, Candy, Downers, Phennies, Reds, Red Birds, Seeping Pills, Tooies, Tranks, Yellow Jackets, Yellows, and Zombie Pills
Stimulants: Bennies, Black Beauties, Hearts, Roses, Skippy, The Smart Drug, Speed, and Vitamin R, and Uppers
Prescription drugs are often strong medications, which is why they require a prescription from a doctor or dentist. There are three kinds of prescription drugs that are commonly misused:
- Opioids—used to relieve pain, such as Vicodin®, OxyContin®, or codeine
- Depressants—used to relieve anxiety or help a person sleep, such as Valium® or Xanax®
- Stimulants— used for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), such as Adderall® and Ritalin®
Prescription drug misuse has become a large public health problem, because misuse can lead to addiction, and even overdose deaths.
What makes prescription drugs unsafe
Every medication has some risk for harmful effects, sometimes serious ones. Doctors and dentists consider the potential benefits and risks to each patient before prescribing medications and take into account a lot of different factors, described below. When prescription drugs are misused, they can be just as dangerous as drugs that are made illegally.
- Personal information. Before prescribing a drug, health providers consider a person’s weight, how long they’ve been prescribed the medication, other medical conditions, and what other medications they are taking. Someone misusing prescription drugs may overload their system or put themselves at risk for dangerous drug interactions that can cause seizures, coma, or even death.
- Form and dose. Doctors know how long it takes for a pill or capsule to dissolve in the stomach, release drugs to the blood, and reach the brain. When misused, prescription drugs are sometimes taken in larger amounts or in ways that change the way the drug works in the body and brain, putting the person at greater risk for an overdose. For example, when people who misuse OxyContin® crush and inhale the pills, a dose that normally works over the course of 12 hours hits the central nervous system all at once. This effect increases the risk for addiction and overdose.
- Side effects. Prescription drugs are designed to treat a specific illness or condition, but they often affect the body in other ways, some of which can be uncomfortable, and in some cases, dangerous. These are called side effects. Side effects can be worse when prescription drugs are not taken as prescribed or are used in combination with other substances. See more on side effects below.
How prescription drugs are misused
- Taking someone else’s prescription medication, even if it is for a medical reason (such as to relieve pain, to stay awake, or to fall asleep).
- Taking a prescription medication in a way other than prescribed—for instance, taking more than the prescribed dose or taking it more often, or crushing pills into powder to snort or inject the drug.
- Taking your own prescription in a way that it is not meant to be taken is also misuse. This includes taking more of the medication than prescribed or changing its form—for example, breaking or crushing a pill or capsule and then snorting the powder.
- Taking the prescription medication to get “high.”
- Mixing it with alcohol or certain other drugs. Your pharmacist can tell you what other drugs are safe to use with specific prescription drugs.
“Borrowing” Drugs is Risky Business
Did you know that “borrowing” someone else’s prescription medication is a kind of drug misuse? It isn’t just illegal; it can be very dangerous.
Most teens who misuse prescription drugs get them for free from a friend or relative. Opioids and stimulants are the most common prescription drugs that teens “borrow.”
Some people don’t see the danger in “loaning” someone else their prescription, even though many medications warn you to “avoid non-medical use.” What that label really means is, “only use this drug exactly the way the doctor prescribed.” It means you should never take more of the drug, or take it when you don’t need it anymore, or give it to someone else. Period.
Why it isn’t safe
- If you have a symptom like pain, and take another person’s prescription pain pill instead of seeing a doctor, you could be letting the actual medical problem get worse.
- Prescription drugs like opioids for pain or stimulants for ADHD are powerful enough to treat people with real medical conditions. A person who doesn’t have that condition will be affected differently and risks becoming addicted.
- Most drugs have side effects, which the doctor considers before prescribing for a particular person. Someone else taking the drug could have unexpected side effects or have a bad reaction, since they were never examined by the doctor. For example, what if a person gives you a drug that was safe for them, and then you have an allergic reaction to it?
- If you’re pregnant, the medication might affect the development of your baby.
Why some people “lend” drugs
- They want to help. Problem is, “lending” the drug is more likely to hurt (see “Why it isn’t safe” above).
- They may be afraid that if they don’t lend the drug, the borrower will be upset or won’t like them anymore. This is a form of peer pressure. Just remember that when you stick to what you know is right, things work out better in the long run.
If someone asks to borrow your prescription medication, suggest that they see a doctor instead. Borrowing or lending a drug can backfire, big time.
Are Prescription Drugs Addictive?
Yes, prescription drugs that effect the brain, including opioid pain relievers, stimulants, and depressants, can cause physical dependence that could lead to addiction. Medications that affect the brain can change the way it works—especially when they are taken over a period of time or with increasing doses. They can change the reward system, making it harder for a person to feel good without the drug and possibly leading to intense cravings, which also make it hard to stop using.
This dependence on the drug happens because the brain and body adapt to having drugs in the system for a while. A person may need larger doses of the drug to get the same initial effects. This is known as “tolerance.” When drug use is stopped, uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms can occur. When people continue to use the drug despite a range of negative consequences, it is considered an addiction. When a person is addicted to a drug, finding and using that drug can begin to feel like the most important thing—more important than family, friends, school, sports, or health.
Carefully following the doctor’s or dentist’s instructions for taking a medication can make it less likely that someone will develop dependence or addiction, because the medication is prescribed in amounts and forms that are considered appropriate for that person. However, dependence and addiction are still potential risks when taking certain types of prescription drugs. These risks should be carefully weighed against the benefits of the medication and patients should communicate any issues or concerns to their doctor right away.
Other kinds of medications that do not act in the brain, such as antibiotics used to treat infections, or drugs to help with heartburn, are not addictive.
How many teens use prescription drugs?
While past year use of any prescription drug among 12th graders has steadily and slowly dropped since 2015, prescription and over-the-counter drugs are the most commonly misused substances by Americans age 14 and older, after marijuana and alcohol.
Below is a chart showing the percentage of teens who misuse prescription drugs.