Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr. FACP, FACR
In 2010, around 7 million people in the U.S. were "nonmedical" users of prescription drugs. This amounts to about 2.7% of the total population. Estimates of the number of people who have used a prescription drug for a nonmedical use are even higher and range to up to 20% of the population. In 2009, 16 million Americans age 12 and older had taken a prescription pain reliever, tranquilizer, stimulant, or sedative for nonmedical purposes at least once in the year prior to being surveyed. Although any type of medication has the potential to be abused, certain groups of prescription drugs are most commonly abused.
Painkillers: Opioids such as codeine and morphine are narcotics prescribed to treat pain. Other drugs in this class include oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin, Norco, etc.), meperidine (Demerol), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), meperidine (Demerol), diphenoxylate (Lomotil), and propoxyphene (Darvon).
CNS depressants/tranquilizerz: Drugs in the Benzodiazepine class are central nervous system (CNS) depressants used to treat anxiety disorders and sometimes for the short-term treatment of insomnia. Examples include alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and triazolam (Halcion).
Barbiturates: Barbiturates are also central nervous system depressants. They include phenobarbital (Luminal), pentobarbital (Nembutal), and mephobarbital (Mebaral). Barbiturates are prescribed to treat insomnia, tension, and anxiety.
Stimulants: Stimulants are sometimes prescribed to treat obesity and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Examples include methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta) and dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine, Adderall). Some of these preparations can be found in over-the-counter diet pills.
The elderly are particularly vulnerable to prescription-drug misuse and are known to have the lowest rate of compliance with instructions for medication use.
Teens and young adults are prone to prescription drug abuse, particularly of painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone. A survey of teens who abused prescription drugs showed that the majority reported receiving them from friends or relatives.
Many experts believe that health-care workers (including doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, and veterinarians) may be at increased risk for prescription-drug abuse because of their easy access to medications.
The misuse and abuse of prescription drugs can lead to drug addiction. Addiction to prescription drugs is treated in much the same way as addiction to illegal drugs and may result in withdrawal symptoms just like addiction to illegal drugs. Behavioral therapy can teach people how to properly use medications and how to manage the cravings and relapses that accompany addiction. Medications can also be used to treat withdrawal symptoms and drug overdoses.
In many cases, the misuse of prescription drugs can be prevented by education about the medications and by strict adherence to the directions for the use of prescription drugs.
Changing the dosage of a drug without consulting a doctor and the sharing of prescription medications with others are two practices that dramatically increase the risk of prescription-drug abuse and dependency. You should check with your doctor before changing the dose of a medication. And never share prescription drugs with anyone.
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United States. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.