As a public health analyst at NIDA, one of my jobs is to look at data and help get information out to the public. When I heard that about 1 in 10 high school seniors had used the pain medicine Vicodin last year without a prescription, I knew there was a problem. Many people, and not just teens, think that because doctors are the ones who typically prescribe these drugs, they are safe for anyone to use. That’s not true.
So, why would someone take a prescription drug that wasn’t theirs? Research shows there are many reasons.
While a number of young people take prescription drugs to get high, many teens, especially girls, take them to help them concentrate when studying or to deal with physical pain. Even this type of use is considered “abuse” and is illegal since the drug was not prescribed for that person.
Not only is it illegal but it might end up affecting your health. Even if you follow the directions on the label, those instructions were written for someone else. For example, different body weights require different dosages for many medicines.
You might be saying, “Well, my friend took a prescription drug that wasn’t hers and she was ok. What’s the big deal?” Maybe for your friend, or even you, it was fine that time-but that may not be the case the next time. Some people aren’t so lucky (like Heath Ledger). Different drugs have different effects. For example, abusing stimulants could cause your blood pressure to become dangerously high or lead to an irregular heartbeat. Or if opioids are taken with alcohol or antihistamines, they can cause you to stop breathing.
Writing this reminded me of a story I heard about an acquaintance who decided to try OxyContin at a party. She had been drinking when she took the pill and didn’t know that OxyContin mixed with alcohol can have some pretty nasty effects. She became disoriented, got separated from her friends, and passed out. Fortunately, her friends found her and she recovered. She decided never again to take that kind of risk, but it’s too bad she had to go through such a scary ordeal before making that choice.
When you’re faced with the option to use a prescription drug that’s not yours, pause and ask yourself… Is this something I really want to add to the mix? Do I want to take the chance of putting myself and my friends through what could happen? If you’re reading this, you’ve shown that you care about yourself and your future. Show you care the next time you face a tough choice about whether or not to pop a pill that’s not yours.
Bio: Anna is a public health analyst with NIDA. She spends a lot of time looking at numbers and answering questions about drug abuse statistics. When she’s not doing that she’s usually at the gym, finding new restaurants, or spending time with her family.
Teens have a lot of questions about drugs, which is why NIDA holds an annual Drug Facts Chat Day to explain the science behind drug abuse. At the last Chat Day, “casa grande” from Casa Grande Union High School in Arizona asked: What are opioids?
Opioids, also known as “opiates,” are a class of drugs with powerful pain-relieving properties. So, some are prescribed by doctors like Percocet, Vicodin, and codeine for people who need them. But then there are also street drugs like heroin that are also opioids—so yeah, Vicodin and heroin are in the same class of drugs!
When prescribed by a doctor, opioids can be used in a responsible way to reduce pain, treat diarrhea, or control coughing. Inside our bodies, opioids link to receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and gut, much like pieces in a puzzle. When they do, they can block the experience of pain. For example, morphine is sometimes given to people before or after surgery. However, opioids can also affect parts of the brain that control feelings of pleasure, producing a sense of euphoria that makes people want to take them again and again even when they’re not in pain. When people keep taking them like that, opioids can actually change the way the brain works, causing strong cravings that are of part of having an addiction.
NIDA scientists have put together a lot of information on opiates – learn more at Mind Over Matter: Opiates, Research Report Series - Prescription Drugs: Abuse and Addiction, NIDA InfoFacts: Heroin.
Lots of people are prescribed prescription drugs like OxyContin or Vicodin to help with pain from an injury or surgery. When taken as prescribed, these medications are safe; but when abused, they can be highly addictive and dangerous—even deadly.
In the video, “Get Back in the Game: Use Painkillers Safely,” NIDA scientists Dr. Cindy Miner and Dr. Joni Rutter describe what can happen when a person abuses painkillers. What is considered prescription drug abuse? Here are some examples:
- Taking someone else’s prescription
- Taking more than prescribed for you, or for a reason other than intended
- Mixing prescription drugs with alcohol or other drugs
To learn more, take a look at the materials in NIDA’s PEERx initiative. Prescription drug abuse is actually a serious public health problem in this country, and is growing in teens. You can help turn it around by raising awareness among your friends and family. Prescription drug abuse IS drug abuse, period.