Opioids are a class of drugs that include those both naturally derived from opium as well as synthetically created. Opioids are generally prescribed to treat pain that is either post-surgical or chronic and ongoing. In the wake of the current opioid crisis, when people think of prescription drug addictions, prescription painkillers are usually the first drugs to come to mind.
Opioids work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain in order to mask pain signals as well as increase feelings of relaxation and euphoria. These pain relievers are generally safe if taken for a short period of time. However, due to its euphoric effects along with pain relief, they can easily be misused and abused. In the event of an opioid overdose, the effects can be reversed if immediately given the overdose reversal drug naloxone.
Central Nervous System (CNS) Stimulants
Substances in this class are most often prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy, and sometimes weight loss. Stimulants increase alertness, attention, and energy, and elevate blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate by increasing levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain and central nervous system.
Drugs in this category are typically prescribed to treat the symptoms of anxiety or panic disorders as well as insomnia and are designed to slow down the brain’s operation. According to Psychology Today, most of these drugs impact the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is used in the brain’s communication system to regulate feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear
Adderall is a CNS stimulant part of the phenethylamine class of drugs used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. The active ingredient in this drug is a form of amphetamine mixed with other variants of amphetamines. It also can be used as an athletic performance and cognitive enhancer. The side effects associated with long-term Adderall abuse include:
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss
- Heart disease
- Jitteriness and tremors
- Heart palpitations
- Difficulty breathing
Ambien is a CNS depressant medication, also known as a sedative, that is usually used to help people with short-term insomnia. It’s considered effective at getting people to sleep, but not maintaining sleep. Ambien’s active ingredient is zolpidem, and it works by easing the brain’s electrical activity while producing a sense of amnesia. The side effects associated with long-term Ambien abuse include:
- Impaired coordination
- Weakness in limbs
- Uncontrollable shaking
- Insomnia as a reverse effect
Ativan is a brand name prescription medication of the generic lorazepam and is part of the powerful class of drugs called benzodiazepines. It is used to treat anxiety disorders, acute alcohol withdrawal, and seizures. Lorazepam can give people a “rapid-onset high” in a short period of time, hence the potential to cause an addiction. The side effects associated with long-term Ativan abuse include:
- Potentially permanent cognitive impairment
- Concentration and memory problems
- Constant drowsiness
Fentanyl is an opioid pain medication considered 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It’s typically prescribed in patch or shot form to patients suffering from severe pain that did not respond to other forms of therapy. However, since fentanyl is often made illegally and used as a recreational drug, usually disguised as other medications and typically mixed with heroin, it has led to a spike in overdoses from 2000-2017.
For those who abuse fentanyl, the danger is not so much in the possible long-term side effects that may occur but in the incredibly high likelihood of a deadly overdose due to the drug’s immense potency. Many people will overdose fatally on fentanyl before they become dependent on it.
Klonopin, the brand name of the drug clonazepam, is a benzodiazepine used to treat people suffering from panic attacks and seizure disorders. Especially when mixed with other substances, Klonopin can be highly addictive and result in higher risks for suicidal thoughts and actions. According to Everyday Health, there were 76,557 Klonopin-related visits to the emergency room in 2011 alone.
The long-term effects of Klonopin abuse are essentially the same as those of Ativan, and for most benzodiazepines in general.
Morphine is a potent opioid pain medication from the poppy straw of the opium plant. It works by directly acting on the central nervous system to minimize the feeling of pain. The drug has a high potential for addiction and abuse, the effects of which include:
- Significant changes in weight
- Impaired coordination
- Abdominal cramps
- Kidney failure
- Difficult, forced breathing
- Low blood pressure
- Decreased metabolism
OxyContin is a “pure narcotic pain killing drug,” containing pure oxycodone. The extended-release OxyContin pill can provide pain relief for up to 12 hours. However, it’s easy for people to abuse the drug by snorting or injecting crushed pills. OxyContin was part of the first major rise in prescription opioid addictions, having been falsely marketed as a safe painkiller with a low risk of addiction. As an opioid, long-term OxyContin abuse has effects similar to morphine, but also some unique effects as well, including:
- Muscle spasms
- Reduced motor control
- Organ failure due to limited oxygen delivery
- Infection and inflammation from solidified chunks of crushed medication creating blockages in the bloodstream
Ritalin is a brand name amphetamine-like central nervous system stimulant prescribed to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Because Ritalin can provide feelings of focus and euphoria, the substance has high abuse potential. The long-term effects of Ritalin abuse may include:
- Confusion and disorientation
- Increased risk of seizures
- Suicidal thoughts and behavior
- Significant weight loss
- Alternating periods of mania and depression
Vicodin is a prescription narcotic pain medication that is a mix of the opioid hydrocodone and acetaminophen. Vicodin is considered one of the most popular pain relief drugs; as there were 131 million prescriptions written in 2011. People who regularly take high levels of Vicodin can do severe, lasting damage to their livers due to the presence of acetaminophen, and may also experience:
- Kidney failure
- Brain damage
- Hearing loss
- Cardiovascular damage
- Sexual dysfunction
Valium, the name brand version of the drug diazepam, is a central nervous system depressant that is part of the benzodiazepine family and is used to treat anxiety disorders, muscle spasms, and seizures. Valium can affect the brain within minutes while staying active for a long period of time, especially when combined with alcohol. Along with the previously-mentioned effects of benzodiazepine abuse, those who abuse Valium may also experience:
- Heart attacks
- Aggressive behavior and mood swings
Xanax, the name brand medication of the generic drug alprazolam, is a benzodiazepine medication used to treat people with anxiety and panic disorders. It possesses sedative properties and can rapidly lead to addiction. In 2010, it was actually the 12th most prescribed medicine in the United States. The long-term effects of Xanax abuse mirror those of Ativan and Klonopin as well as the effects associated with Valium.
According to NIDA, the rate of prescription drug addiction is increasing in people aged 50 and older, along with the highest reported instances of abuse coming from elderly Americans (aged 65 and above). Roughly 25 percent of older Americans use prescription psychoactive medications that have a potential to be misused and abused and are more likely to take them for longer periods than younger adults would.
Older adults are at higher risk of prescription drug abuse than other age groups due to factors such as elevated pain rates and higher instances of illness and sleep disorders. Particularly among the elderly, issues with cognitive decline from Alzheimer’s or dementia may also contribute to accidental misuse of prescription medication.
Teenagers And Young Adults
We’ve already mentioned the high rates of Adderall and prescription stimulant abuse among high school and college students, and because prescription medication has been given to them by a doctor, many young people are under the mistaken impression that these drugs are safer to misuse than illegal ones.
According to a 2013 Monitoring the Future survey, after marijuana, prescription medications are the most abused category of drugs among youths aged 12 to 17 in the United States. Teenagers have fairly easy access to many prescription medications by way of their parents’ medicine cabinets and may have an easier time accessing prescription drugs than illicit ones.
People With Co-occurring Disorders
Those suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues are extremely vulnerable to prescription drug addiction and likely to misuse it to cope with symptoms of depression and anxiety. This group is also at a greater risk of mixing prescription medication with substances like alcohol, which could have potentially deadly results.
Some Common Tell-Tale Signs Include:
- Impaired motor skills
- Significant changes in appetite
- Noticeable agitation and mood swings
- Disrupted sleep or unusual sleep patterns
- Appearing to be high, which, depending on the medication can be unusually energetic, euphoric, or sedated
- Difficulty remembering important things
- Impaired judgment and decision-making
Other Observable Signs Include:
- Social withdrawal
- Increase in secretive behavior
- Money or valuables suddenly going missing
- Stealing, forging, or selling prescriptions
- Decline in performance at work or school
- Lack of interest in hobbies and activities they previously enjoyed
- Attempting to get prescriptions from more than one doctor (known as “doctor shopping”)
- Regularly “losing” prescriptions to get more of them written