Prescription drug abuse

Prescription drug abuse is the use of a prescription medication in a way not intended by the prescribing doctor, such as for the feelings you get from the drug. Prescription drug abuse or problematic use includes everything from taking a friend's prescription painkiller for your backache to snorting or injecting ground-up pills to get high. Drug abuse may become ongoing and compulsive, despite the negative consequences.

An increasing problem, prescription drug abuse can affect all age groups, but it's more common in young people. The prescription drugs most often abused include painkillers, sedatives, anti-anxiety medications and stimulants.

Early identification of prescription drug abuse and early intervention may prevent the problem from turning into an addiction.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse depend on the particular drug. Because of their mind-altering properties, the most commonly abused prescription drugs are:

  • Opioids, such as oxycodone (Oxycontin) and those containing hydrocodone (Vicodin), used to treat pain
  • Anti-anxiety medications and sedatives, such as alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium), and hypnotics, such as zolpidem (Ambien), used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders
  • Stimulants, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin), used to treat ADHD and certain sleep disorders

Signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse

Opioid painkillersSedatives and anti-anxiety medicationsStimulants
  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Low blood pressure
  • Decreased breathing rate
  • Confusion
  • Sweating
  • Poor coordination
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Unsteady walking
  • Poor judgment
  • Involuntary and rapid movement of the eyeball
  • Dizziness
  • Weight loss
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Restlessness
  • Impulsive behavior

Other signs include:

  • Stealing, forging or selling prescriptions
  • Taking higher doses than prescribed
  • Excessive mood swings or hostility
  • Increase or decrease in sleep
  • Poor decision making
  • Appearing to be high, unusually energetic or revved up, or sedated
  • Continually "losing" prescriptions, so more prescriptions must be written
  • Seeking prescriptions from more than one doctor

When to see a doctor

Talk to your doctor if you think you may have a problem with prescription drug use. You may feel embarrassed to talk to your doctor about it — but remember that medical professionals are trained to help you, not judge you. Identifying prescription drug abuse as soon as possible is important. It's easier to tackle the problem early before it becomes an addiction and leads to more serious problems.

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