After marijuana, prescription drug misuse is the most commonly used illicit substance in America, proving that drug addiction is as near as the medicine cabinet in your bathroom.
The majority of people who take prescription medications do not misuse them. However, abuse remains prevalent, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NIDA). When abuse does occur, it is usually with prescription pain relievers, stimulants, sedatives, or tranquilizers.
When people misuse prescription medications, it is often in conjunction with other substances like alcohol or other medications. People who abuse medications in this manner require specialized treatment that addresses this kind of polysubstance abuse. What’s more, if people are taking drugs to relieve symptoms associated with a mental health disorder and decline into abuse, then a dual diagnosis program, where the substance addiction and mental health issue is addressed, would be the best solution.
Both of these programs are available through a reputable professional recovery program.
Read on to learn more about the most abused prescription medications and available treatment options.
What is Prescription Drug Addiction?
The hallmarks of prescription drug addiction are as follows:
- Taking prescription medications in higher doses
- Taking someone else’s prescription medications
- Taking prescription medication for recreational purposes
The most commonly abused types of prescription drugs typically fall into one of these four categories:
- Pain relievers: Comprised of naturally derived and synthetic drugs, prescription opioids are typically prescribed to treat chronic pain or pain related to surgery. In general, opioids work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain to block pain signals and amplify feelings of bliss and relaxation. Prescription opioids are typically intended for short-term use. Users fall into the trap of addiction by taking a larger than prescribed doses and/or through taking it longer than directed.
- Tranquilizers: Prescription tranquilizers are drugs that treat anxiety or provide relief from muscle spasms, and they are commonly referred to as minor tranquilizers. Major tranquilizers include antipsychotic drugs that treat mood disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The drugs in the minor tranquilizer category, termed anxiolytics, work by increasing the concentration of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine brain chemicals, which have the effect of reducing anxiety.
- Stimulants: Drugs in this class treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), issues with weight loss, or problems with wakefulness. These drugs work by stimulating the activity of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. The short-term effects of these medications include a rush of euphoria, and increased blood pressure and heart rate, along with opened-up breathing passages.
- Sedatives: This class of drugs is notable for its ability to treat sleep disorders like insomnia. They slow down the central nervous system activity by increasing the presence of gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical responsible for decreasing brain activity. Sedatives produce drowsiness, muscle relaxation, lightheadedness, and relaxation.
Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs
Prescription painkillers, the most commonly abused prescription medication, helped fuel the deadliest drug scourge in American history, the opioid epidemic. The brand name prescription medication OxyContin, in fact, is blamed for launching the first wave of the epidemic in the late 1990s.
Since OxyContin came to market in 1995, more than 200,000 people in the U.S. have died from prescription opioid overdoses, according to The New York Times.
A common narrative that has emerged out of this crisis is of a person who was prescribed OxyContin for a painful condition only to become hooked. People like Cristin, whose story was featured on the Yale Medicine site.
Cristin took her first OxyContin in 1998 at the age of 18. Her family doctor prescribed it after a car accident left her with painful, bulging disks in her lower back. She took the pills as prescribed, but after a year, her doctor refused to renew her prescription. She eventually experienced the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms from opioids and began sniffing and then injecting heroin to alleviate the pain.
Most of her 20s were marked by heroin addiction.
Prescription drugs run the gamut and provide treatment for a variety of ailments. They also become objects of abuse for a variety of reasons. In fact, an estimated 18 million people misused prescription medications in 2017, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from that year.
Of those, about 2 million people in the U.S. have misused prescription pain relievers for the first time. In that same year, 1 million have misused prescription stimulants, 1.5 million misused tranquilizers, and 271,000 misused sedatives for the first time.
The Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs Include:
- Adderall: This CNS stimulant is an ADHD medication that is abused as a study drug among college students, in that it heightens alertness.
- Ambien: This sedative medication that is prescribed for insomnia is abused for the high it produces.
- Ativan: This potent benzodiazepine, which is considered a minor tranquilizer, is prescribed to treat seizure disorders, anxiety, and surgical procedures. It is abused for its sedative effects.
- Fentanyl: This highly potent, extremely dangerous opioid is estimated to be 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine and is solely administered in hospital settings for the pain management treatment of cancer patients. Just a few grains of this drug can be lethal for humans, and it is often incorporated into heroin and cocaine. This drug is now the main driver of the current iteration of the opioid overdose epidemic.
- Klonopin: Another benzodiazepine medication used to treat anxiety, seizures, and panic disorder. Yet, another prescription drug abused for its profound sedative effects.
- Morphine: This pain-relieving opioid is prescribed to treat moderate-to-severe pain, but it has the potential for abuse due to the euphoric effects it produces.
- OxyContin: This opioid medication contains oxycodone, which is 50 percent stronger than morphine. OxyContin is prescribed to treat moderate-to-severe pain but carries a high potential for abuse due to its profound sedative and euphoric effects.
- Ritalin: This is another stimulant medication that’s used to treat symptoms associated with ADHD, but it is abused as a study drug due to its ability to boost alertness.
- Valium: Another minor tranquilizer medication prescribed to treat anxiety, muscle spasms, and seizure is also a drug of abuse capable of producing a euphoria akin to drunkenness.
- Vicodin: A hydrocodone-based opioid drug prescribed to treat pain that carries a high risk of dependence and addiction like its other chemical cousins. Like OxyContin, Vicodin is abused for its euphoric effects.
- Xanax: Yet, another minor tranquilizer of the benzodiazepine class that is used to treat anxiety and panic disorder. Like Valium and Klonopin, Xanax can produce feelings of calm and drowsiness, sensations that simulate drunkenness.
Drug Interactions: The Special Dangers of Prescription Drug Addiction
There is another factor to consider with prescription drug use: how they interact with other substances.
Prescription Opioid Pain Relievers
When prescription opioids interact with certain substances that have depressant effects, the result could mean central nervous system depression, according to NIDA. Prescription opioids should never be mixed with the following substances, which could lead to profound sedation and death:
For this same reason, certain sedative and tranquilizer drugs should also never be used in combination with other depressant medications:
- Opioids and pain medications
- Certain over-the-counter (OTC) medications
Users who take prescription stimulants should be careful when pairing their medications with other substances that produce the same effect. Taking two or more medications with stimulant effects can lead to cardiac complications and blood pressure problems. The following substances can have dangerous interactions with prescription stimulants:
- Asthma medication
- OTC decongestants
How Professional Treatment Can Help
Professional treatment offers the best solutions for prescription medication addiction. Why? Because it offers the kind of comprehensive and specialized care tailored to meet the various needs of this type of dependency.
If you or a loved one has a prescription drug addiction, professional treatment can offer medical detoxification where the substance is removed from the body; residential and outpatient treatment that offers comprehensive therapy and counseling; and aftercare through an alumni program.
There are also special circumstances that come with prescription addiction, which depends on the drug type and how it is taken.
Typically, people who misuse prescription medication take it with alcohol and other substances, a practice that is known as polysubstance abuse. Engaging in multiple, simultaneous drug abuse amplifies the effects of both drugs and can result in overdose and death.
There is also the issue of prescription opioid dependency and prescription abuse where someone has a co-occurring mental health disorder. Both of these special circumstances also require the utmost in comprehensive and specialized care, the kind offered through residential treatment, partial hospitalization, or intensive outpatient treatment.
For individuals with substance addiction and a co-occurring mental health condition, a dual diagnosis program can concurrently treat those conditions.
The spectrum of services offered through professional treatment helps patients acquire physical and mental health, sustained recovery, and the necessary tools and education to live a positive and productive life as a sober person.