Despite the fact that these drugs are actually legal, abusing them by popping too many, mixing them with other substances, or taking drugs that were never prescribed to you can have a host of pretty severe consequences.
If you or someone you know is battling a prescription medication addiction or abuse problem, it’s imperative that you recognize the very serious and sometimes permanent damage that abusing these drugs can cause.
What’s more, it’s also crucial to recognize that this addiction is particularly dangerous for the modern-day woman.
Prescription drugs are everywhere today. Whether you’re treating hair loss or overgrowth, heart disease or arthritis, anxiety or depression, there’s bound to be a prescription somewhere that can cure what ails you.
In fact, prescription drugs have become so prolific in this day and age that almost half of the population has used at least one prescription drug in the past 30 days according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What’s more, 23.1% have used three or more in the past month and 11.9% have used at least five!
Despite how common prescription drugs have become in our culture, these drugs can be more dangerous than you might think, especially when they’re abused in order to achieve a high.
One of the biggest contributors to prescription drugs being used illicitly is the fact that many times patients don’t feel like they’re actually abusing the drugs at all.
Maybe they take an extra pill every other day to help relieve their chronic pain before a road trip. Or maybe they have a big meeting coming up and need a little extra help calming their nerves.
And beyond it all, they have an actual prescription that says they can take this medication legally. After all, it’s not like they’re smoking crack or shooting up, right?
While it’s true, many of these substances are in fact legal to take, that doesn’t mean that they can any less easily become dangerous substances of abuse. In fact, some prescription drugs are actually stronger than street drugs many times over.
For example, Fentanyl (a legal prescription opioid) is 25 to 50 times more potent than heroin according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Legality and safety, then, don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.
To put the prescription drug addiction problem into perspective, here are a few startling statistics that show the severity of the epidemic.
While determining abuse in illicit substances is incredibly easy (using an illegal substance ever is considered abuse), doing so for legal substances like prescription medications gets into a bit more of a grey area.
For instance, if you accidently have a drink while you’re on a prescription opioid, would that be considered abusing the drug? What about if you double-dose one day because you lost track of time?
While NIDA describes prescription drug abuse as “using prescription drugs in ways other than prescribed or using someone else’s prescription,” a more helpful way of looking at it may be knowingly using prescription drugs improperly.
Mixing alcohol with pills purposefully in order to create a buzz, for example, would be considered abuse.
But when does abuse turn into addiction?
The most commonly abused prescription drugs on the market today can be broken down into three major categories: opioids, stimulants, and CNS depressants.
Among these groups, some of the most common ones are:
Another especially commonly abused drug is Dextromethorphan, also known as DXM. This drug can be found in a number of medications, primarily those that are used to treat cough and cold symptoms.
While it was once highly accessible in drugs like Robitussin, Vicks, and Triple C, the DEA has cracked down quite a bit on the abuse of this substance. Many stores are now putting measures in place to make it more difficult to purchase DXM-containing drugs for abuse.
And although there are prescription versions of DXM medications, the majority of talk surrounding prescription medication abuse has to do with opioids, stimulants, and CNS depressants.
As such, if you’d like to learn more about DXM addiction, feel free to take a look at the comprehensive OTC Addiction and Abuse Information Page.
Prescription opioids are some of the most commonly abused substances on the market today. The Centers for Disease Control reports that nearly a quarter of a billion opioid prescriptions were written in 2013 alone. What’s more, more than 40 people die every single day due to an overdose involving prescription opioids.
But how do drugs like OxyContin and Fentanyl really work and why are they so addictive?
All opioids affect the same parts of the brain – the opioid receptors on certain cells. These receptors are highly specialized and are formed to interact with the brain’s natural opioids, endorphins.
When the receptors match up with a chemical that corresponds to its structural shape like these endorphins, they help to regulate mood, pain relief, and respiration.
Prescription opioids, however, are typically much stronger than the natural opioids found in our bodies. As such, these chemical compounds stimulate the receptors to a whole new degree, causing them to overreact and produce the high that opioid addicts crave.
As the body becomes used to the presence of these chemicals though, it begins to adapt. As such, tolerance and dependence form and the body cannot function normally without these opioids.
Prescription stimulants are used to treat a number of disorders including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), attention deficit disorder (ADD), and narcolepsy. They can be broken down into methylphenidates (like Ritalin) and amphetamines (like Adderall).
All stimulants (including drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine) affect the brain in the same way – by increasing the levels of dopamine produced in the brain. Clinical stimulants are meant to increase these levels gradually and can result in a greater ability to focus on a task at hand. This is why such stimulants are used to treat disorders like ADHD.
Despite what most people believe, ADHD isn’t just for kids. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that around 8% of adults aged 30 to 44 have a lifetime prevalence of ADHD.
These prescription drugs, then, can be instrumental in helping these individuals lead productive and functional lives. But when drugs like Ritalin and Adderall are abused, they can have some very serious consequences.
Prescription CNS depressants can be broken down into three separate categories: barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and sleep medications. And while they all have the same general effect of slowing down the processes of the central nervous system, each goes about it in a slightly different way.
Barbiturates are some of the oldest CNS depressants and have been used in the medical community for over one hundred years. It, like other depressants, works primarily by increasing the potency of the brain’s natural inhibitory chemical called GABA.
Benzodiazepines have largely replaced barbiturates today since, as NIDA points out, benzos have much less of a risk of being abused and don’t carry with them some of the same nasty side effects as barbiturates.
Having said that, benzodiazepines like Xanax are still quite dangerous and should only be used in the short-term due to their risk of developing a physical dependency.
Non-benzodiazepine sleep medications like Ambien or Lunesta have a different chemical structure than benzodiazepines but still act on the same parts of the brain. As the name implies, these prescription medications are more often used in sleep aid rather than anxiety disorders like benzos and are thought to have fewer side effects and less risk of addiction.
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But when you are the one with a prescription pill problem it can be much harder to recognize the truth. In fact, only about 11% of drug addicts end up actually receiving treatment for their substance use disorder. That leaves around 89% of addicts to struggle with their addiction on their own.
Even still, there are a number of signs to look for if you’re questioning whether or not you’re addicted to prescription meds. Maybe you’ve been telling yourself you’re going to quit, but have never actually been able to follow through. Or maybe you find yourself making excuses to use for just a little bit longer.
There are a few ways to test whether or not you’ve got a prescription pill problem. For starters, you can take a short online addiction quiz to get a general indication of how far your addiction has progressed. It doesn’t take long at all to complete and is a great way to gain a bit of perspective on your behaviors.
For an even more in-depth look at your prescription drug-seeking behaviors, consider taking a look at some of the self-assessment options offered by NIDA as well as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).
The National Institute on Drug Abuse website has quite an extensive collection of assessment tools for determining whether you or someone you know has developed a prescription drug use disorder.
You can also utilize the guidelines provided by the DSM-V to see if you fit the bill for a substance use disorder. The main advantage of this assessment is that these are actually the exact same criteria that many physicians and mental health professionals use to diagnose a substance use disorder.
While these tools are a great way to get a rough idea of your level of addiction, none of them should be substituted for the actual opinion of a qualified medical professional.
On the whole, men outnumber women in terms of prescription drug abuse. According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nonmedical use of prescription psychotherapeutic drugs was 2.6% in men and 2.3% in women.
These trends are pretty consistent with gender differences in terms of drug use as a whole.
However, statistics are beginning to show that this gap between the genders is quickly closing. In fact, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that from 1999 to 2010, abuse of prescription drugs like opioids jumped by 3.6 times for men. For women, the rise was closer to five times as high.
These numbers are quite significant today. As abuse of prescription drugs increasingly becomes the norm, women may be more at risk for developing serious prescription medication dependencies in the future.
As NIDA points out, women have been statistically shown to:
In the end, the cause of this rise of prescription drug abuse among women is still only speculation.
It could be an increasingly common “superwoman syndrome” that requires the modern woman to juggle countless obligations. It may be a physical and genetic predisposition.
Whatever the cause, women should be especially careful when it comes prescription drug abuse.
In addition to the euphoria and relief from physical pain that many prescription opioid abusers take these drugs for, opioids can also bring along a number of pretty nasty short- and long-term side effects as well.
According to Healthline, some of these short-term side effects include:
Long-term prescription opioid abuse can also cause a number of especially problematic protracted symptoms as well. Some of these may include:
Finally, abusing prescription opioids also increases the risk of becoming addicted to heroin. In fact, NIDA reports that the “incidence of heroin initiation was 19 times higher among those who reported prior nonmedical pain reliever use than among those who did not.”
And when you consider just how terrifying a heroin addiction can really be, this added risk is reason enough not to get mixed up with prescription opioids.
While prescription stimulants can be incredibly beneficial when it comes to treating disorders like ADHD, abusing these drugs can have a wide range of detrimental health effects.
The SAMHSA Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 33 points out some of the most common short-term effects as:
Long-term stimulant abuse can end up causing a host of both physical and mental problems. These effects can seriously detract from quality of life and may severely damage your interpersonal relationships, careers, and even your sense of self.
SAMHSA’s TIP points out some of these long-term effects which include:
Given the extensive and disconcerting list of side effects, this is one class of prescription drugs that you don’t want to mess with.
There is a long list of short- and long-term effects of CNS depressants that can be further broken down into effects of benzodiazepines, sleep medications, and barbiturates.
For benzodiazepines, the short-term effects according to the NSW Government Fact Sheet, include:
In the long-term, benzodiazepines have been shown to lead to:
Short-term side effects of barbiturates use and abuse according to the Mayo Clinic include:
Long-term barbiturate effects include:
And finally, the short-term effects of sleep medications like Ambien according to the Mayo Clinic include:
The AARP reports that some of the most common long-term side effects of sleep medications like Ambien are:
As prescription pill abuse becomes a more common part of your life, your body begins to develop a series of adaptations to the frequent presence of these chemicals. It may, for instance, reduce the number of active receptors in the brain for certain compounds. This is an attempt of the body to bring the system back to a state of homeostasis.
When it comes to opioids, one of the main reasons we become tolerant to these drugs is because the body reduces the density of opioid receptor sites. With less receptor sites available for the opioids to bind to, the overall effects of the drugs are much more diminished.
In the case of CNS depressants, the body ups the potency of excitatory neurotransmitters in order to counteract the more powerful inhibitory chemical GABA. As a result, neurons are able to fire much more easily rather than being slowed down to a crawl by GABA.
Addiction to prescription stimulants like Adderall typically result in the body’s dopamine receptors also being downregulated, similar to how opioid tolerance means there are less receptors to interact with. Once again, this means that higher amounts of the stimulant must be taken in order to achieve the same effect.
After these drugs are removed entirely (detoxification), the body struggles to return back to normal, causing a number of uncomfortable symptoms known as withdrawals.
According to many people in the addiction community, going through opioid withdrawals can be incredibly uncomfortable. The symptoms of withdrawal themselves make it quite difficult to carry on normal daily functioning, they tend to last for a significant amount of time, and they can also lead to complications that could end up being quite severe.
Some of the most common opioid withdrawal symptoms according to Mental Health Daily include:
Ultimately, prescription opioid withdrawals can be tough to get through on your own. What’s more, relapsing on opioids can actually be deadly.
But with the right professional treatment, you can get through these especially uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal and start leading a sober, prescription drug-free life.
Opioid withdrawal symptoms alone are not fatal. Painful, uncomfortable, and “hellish” for some, sure. But not fatal.
Having said that, there is one aspect of prescription opioid withdrawals that may end up costing you your life. And that’s relapsing. While relapsing on any substance of abuse can be quite common (40 to 60% of addicts end up relapsing according to NIDA), the rates of falling back into prescription opioid medications may be much higher.
One study, for instance, found that an astounding 91% of opioid addicts end up turning back to these illicit substances. What’s more, 59% of these individuals actually relapse within the very first week of recovery.
What makes this such an important (and deadly) statistic is the fact that opioids tend to build tolerance quite quickly, but that tolerance falls off rapidly as well. As such, someone who spends a week abstaining from opioids may return to using again only to find that the dosage that got them buzzed beforehand is now high enough to cause an overdose.
It’s important, then, if you or someone you know is suffering from an opioid prescription drug addiction, you get the professional help needed to treat it properly.
Similar to prescription opioids, withdrawal from prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin is not life threatening. But also similar to prescription opioids, the symptoms of withdrawal can be quite intense.
These symptoms can begin to manifest anywhere from hours to days after the last dosage, usually depending on the substance itself as well as the extent of the abuse.
According to the Treatment for Stimulant Use Disorders Quick Guide from SAMHSA, some of the most common symptoms are:
Severe depression is one withdrawal symptom to be especially aware of when it comes to prescription stimulant detoxification. Since stimulants act directly upon dopamine receptors and production centers, the sudden cessation of abusing these substances quite frequently results in a deficiency of this pleasure-causing neurotransmitter.
As such, sensitive treatment practices as well as dual diagnosis facilities are going to be your best bet when trying to overcome addiction to prescription drugs that are stimulants.
Withdrawals experienced during detoxification from CNS depressants can be far more painful and uncomfortable than other substances of abuse, even when compared to such heavy hitters as heroin and methamphetamine.
Beyond the unbearableness of these symptoms, detoxification from CNS depressants can also be quite deadly.
Some of the main symptoms of barbiturate withdrawals include:
When it comes to benzodiazepines, the full list of withdrawals is incredibly extensive. However, some of the most notable symptoms include:
This isn’t even half of the symptoms reported either. It’s no wonder, then, that detox from addiction to benzodiazepines like Xanax is so painful.
And finally, non-benzodiazepine sleeping medications like Ambien can have some pretty nasty withdrawals as well.
According to Mental Health Daily, these symptoms include:
You may be tempted to tackle your CNS depressant detoxification on your own. Maybe you can’t find the days to take off work or are worried your insurance carrier won’t cover your stay at a proper facility.
No matter what your reasons though, the truth of the matter is that deciding to skip professional help with your detox can end up costing you your life.
You see, with CNS depressants and benzodiazepines in particular, the potency of the main inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA is greatly increased, resulting in the sedation and anxiety reduction characteristic of these drugs.
However, the body builds tolerance to these substances by upping the power of the brain’s main excitatory chemicals to counteract the stronger GABA. When the chemicals that cause the stronger GABA are removed entirely, the intensified excitatory neurotransmitters can launch the brain into a flurry of electrical activity.
This overcompensation brings on symptoms like paranoia, anxiety, psychosis, and even deadly grand mal seizures.
The best way to prevent these symptoms (and ensure your safety) is by seeking the help of a professional addiction treatment center. After all, what price would you put on your life?
While the first phase of detoxification from prescription meds brings with it some especially severe symptoms, the more protracted phase (known as post-acute withdrawal symptoms or PAWS) is a bit more subdued.
It includes symptoms such as:
For the most part, the effects of PAWS are confined mainly to the psychological sector.
When put side by side next to some of the incredibly uncomfortable physical withdrawal symptoms (e.g. diarrhea, cramps, sweating, nausea, tremors, muscle aches), you may think that PAWS doesn’t sound all that bad comparatively.
However, this group of symptoms can actually stick around for several weeks, months, or even years. And over time, they may be far more difficult to bear than you originally thought.
As such, it’s important to account for this aspect of recovery when deciding on your proper treatment plan. Making sure your addiction center of choice has continuing care services, for example, is just one more way to ensure your eventual sobriety and full recovery.
Treating prescription drug addictions (and addiction as a whole) has come a long way in just a few decades. One of the most exciting developments is the implementation of Medication-Assisted Treatments (MATs) in addiction facilities all over the world.
For prescription drugs in particular, there are a number of MATs currently in use, primarily for prescription opioids.
These include Opioid Replacement Therapies (ORTs) which, as the name suggests, replace dangerous opioid use with more subtle and controllable opioids in order to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms. The two major ORTs today are buprenorphine and methadone.
Naloxone is also used in prescription opioid addiction recovery. It helps to eliminate the euphoria and pain relief that comes with abusing opioids, thereby removing the incentive for addicts to begin using again.
According to NIDA, there currently aren’t any drugs approved by the FDA expressly for treating CNS depressant or stimulant addiction. However, given that there are a host of psychological side effects to each of these, you may want to consult with your addiction professional on medications that can lessen the intensity of these effects.
However, do not begin using medications haphazardly without first talking to your doctor. Doing so may result in some troublesome drug interactions or even developing a cross addiction in the process.
Getting through your prescription drug addiction and recovery can be a stressful and uncomfortable process to be sure.
No matter what your substance of abuse is, you’ll likely experience a number of painfully unbearable symptoms along the way. What’s more, the protracted withdrawals can be particularly tough to power through.
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