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Understanding Prescription Drug Abuse

Although it’s dangerous to take a prescription medication without a prescription, abusing such medications is the fastest growing type of drug abuse in the United States, outpacing marijuana abuse two to one, according to some studies.

A study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found the number of teenagers who admit to abusing prescription medications tripled from 1992 to 2003, while in the general population such abuse had doubled. More recent reports from that center show that the percentages have decreased in the past 10 years, but prescription drug abuse remains a serious and significant problem.        

What’s going on?

Several factors that have arisen in the last decade or so have made the type of prescription drugs people abuse very easy to get. The number of prescriptions issued by doctors for opioid pain medications, stimulants, and sedatives has increased greatly in the past decade. So many family members, friends, and acquaintances are likely to have these medications. In fact, anyone with or without a credit card can purchase just about any drug on the Internet without age verification.

In addition, on many high school and college campuses, the drugs are sold, given away, or traded by people with prescriptions, or students acquire them from college campus health centers by faking a need for them. The most commonly abused medications are pain relievers (oxycodone or hydrocodone), stimulants (Ritalin or Adderal), and sedatives (Valium, Xanax, or Klonopin). 

Many risks

People who take prescription drugs without their health care providers’ approval face many risks such as:

  • Death from accidental overdose resulting from misuse or abuse of these kinds of medications have risen dramatically in the past 10 years.  

  • They don’t have information about dosage, side effects, or other risks of use.

  • The medication may interact with another drug they take.

  • Taking the medication may be dangerous because of a condition they have, such as asthma or heart disease.

  • Many of the abused drugs, including painkillers, such as OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax, Valium, and Ritalin, are potentially addictive.

  • There’s no guarantee drugs purchased on the Internet are pure, contain the stated strength, or manufactured with quality control.

  • Users, especially teenagers and college students, may not realize the dangers of abusing painkillers and drugs for mental illness. For instance, a student who will take OxyContin or Ritalin may never take a street drug, such as cocaine or heroin because they mistakenly think a prescription drug is safer and legal.

Because of the dangers involved, parents should talk with their children about this type of drug abuse, just as they do about alcohol, marijuana, and club drugs.

They also should pay attention to their children’s moods and behaviors. Symptoms to be aware of include chronic insomnia, daytime drowsiness, paranoia, high anxiety, or panic attacks, all of which can be caused by abusing prescription drugs. Additionally, parents and caregivers should ensure that any prescription medication within their own home is either locked in a medicine cabinet or inaccessible to avoid misuse or abuse.