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Prescription drug abuse is when someone takes a medication that was prescribed for someone else or takes their own prescription in a way not intended by a doctor or for a different reason—like to get high.
It has become a big health issue because of the dangers, particularly the danger of abusing prescription pain medications. For teens, it is a growing problem:
After marijuana and alcohol, prescription drugs are the most commonly abused substances by Americans age 14 and older.
Teens abuse 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.
Most teens get prescription drugs they abuse from friends and relatives, sometimes without the person knowing.
Boys and girls tend to abuse some types of prescription drugs for different reasons. For example, boys are more likely to abuse prescription stimulants to get high, while girls tend to abuse them to stay alert or to lose weight.
When prescription drugs are taken as directed, they are usually safe. It requires a trained health care clinician, such as a doctor or nurse, to determine if the benefits of taking the medication outweigh any risks for side effects. But when abused and taken in different amounts or for different purposes than as prescribed, they affect the brain and body in ways very similar to illicit drugs.
When prescription drugs are abused, they can be addictive and put the person at risk for other harmful health effects, such as overdose (especially when taken along with other drugs or alcohol). And, abusing prescription drugs is illegal—and that includes sharing prescriptions with family members or friends.
Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs
There are three kinds of prescription drugs that are commonly abused. Visit our separate Drug Facts pages to learn more about each of these classes of drugs:
Opioids—painkillers like Vicodin, OxyContin, or codeine
Depressants—like those used to relieve anxiety or help a person sleep, such as Valium or Xanax
Stimulants—like those used for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), such as Adderall and Ritalin
People abuse prescription drugs by taking medication in a way that is not intended, such as:
Taking someone else’s prescription medication. Even when someone takes another person’s medication for its intended purposes (such as to relieve pain, to stay awake, or to fall asleep) it is considered abuse.
Taking a prescription medication in a way other than prescribed. Taking your own prescription in a way that it is not meant to be taken is also abuse. 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 a prescription medication to get high. Some types of prescription drugs also can produce pleasurable effects or “highs.” Taking the medication only for the purpose of getting high is considered prescription drug abuse.
In the brain, neurotransmitters such as dopamine send messages by attaching to receptors on nearby cells. The actions of these neurotransmitters and receptors cause the effects from prescription drugs. Each class of prescription drugs works a bit differently in the brain:
Prescription opioid pain medications bind to molecules on cells known as opioid receptors—the same receptors that respond to heroin. These receptors are found on nerve cells in many areas of the brain and body, especially in brain areas involved in the perception of pain and pleasure.
Prescription stimulants, such as Ritalin, have similar effects to cocaine, by causing a buildup of dopamine and norepinephrine.
Prescription depressants make a person feel calm and relaxed in the same manner as the club drugs GHB and rohypnol.
Prescription drugs can cause dangerous short- and long-term health problems when they are not used as directed or when they are taken by someone other than the person they were prescribed for.
Abusing opioids like oxycodone and codeine can cause you to feel sleepy, sick to your stomach, and constipated. At higher doses, opioids can make it hard to breathe properly and can cause overdose and death.
Abusing stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin can make you feel paranoid (feeling like someone is going to harm you even though they aren’t). It also can cause your body temperature to get dangerously high and make your heart beat too fast. This is especially likely if stimulants are taken in large doses or in ways other than swallowing a pill.
Abusing depressants like barbiturates can cause slurred speech, shallow breathing, sleepiness, disorientation, and lack of coordination. People who abuse depressants regularly and then stop suddenly may experience seizures. At higher doses depressants can also cause overdose and death, especially when combined with alcohol.
Abusing depressants like barbiturates can cause slurred speech, shallow breathing, sleepiness, disorientation, and lack of coordination. People who abuse depressants regularly and then stop suddenly may experience seizures.
In addition, abusing over-the-counter drugs that contain DXM can also produce very dangerous effects.
Abuse of any of these types of medications can lead to addiction. And, abusing any type of drug that causes changes in your mood, perceptions, and behavior can affect judgment and willingness to take risks—putting you at greater risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Prescription drugs can increase risk for health problems when combined with other prescription medications, over-the-counter medicines, illicit drugs, or alcohol. For example, combining opioids (painkillers) with alcohol can make breathing problems worse and can lead to death.