NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse
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Prescription Drug Abuse

Types of Prescription Drugs

Prescription Painkillers

prescription bottle

Prescription painkillers are powerful drugs that reduce pain. These drugs are very helpful to people with severe pain from injuries, and cancer and other diseases.

Prescription painkillers attach to particular sites in the brain called opioid receptors, which carry messages about pain. With proper use of prescription painkillers, the pain messages sent to the brain are changed and are no longer perceived as painful. Patients who are prescribed painkillers for a long period of time may develop a “physical dependence” on them. This is not the same as addiction. Physical dependence happens because the body adapts to having the drug around, and when its use is stopped abruptly, the person can experience symptoms of withdrawal. That is why these drugs are carefully monitored and should be taken or stopped only under a doctor’s orders.

Prescription painkillers can be highly addictive when used improperly—without a doctor’s prescription or in doses higher than prescribed. Addiction means that a person will strongly crave the drug and continue to use it despite severe consequences to their health and their life. Prescription painkillers also affect the brain areas controlling respiration, and when used improperly (or mixed with other drugs) can cause a severe decrease in breathing that can lead to death.

Prescription Drugs for Sleep Disorders

Prescription drugs for sleep disorders increase levels of a neurotransmitter named gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA sends messages that slow down bodily functions and make a person feel drowsy.

Prescription drugs for sleep disorders may have side effects, including headache, muscle aches, daytime sleepiness, trouble concentrating, and dizziness. Prescription drugs for sleep disorders should never be mixed with any other drugs that cause drowsiness, such as over-the-counter cold medicine, alcohol, or painkillers. If combined, they can slow a person’s heart rate and respiration, which can be fatal.

Prescription Anti-anxiety Drugs

Doctors may prescribe drugs to help people with anxiety disorders. Some anti-anxiety drugs affect the neurotransmitter GABA.

After taking anti-anxiety drugs for a long time and suddenly stopping, a person may experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, shakiness, headache, dizziness, and, in extreme cases, seizures. Abusing prescription anti-anxiety drugs can result in addiction or overdose.

Prescription Stimulants

brand names of prescription drugs

Prescription stimulants cause neurons to release two neurotransmitters: dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine carries messages in the brain about feeling good. Norepinephrine is a chemical in the brain that helps people pay attention and focus.

Doctors often prescribe stimulants to help people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Many scientists believe that in people with ADHD, the dopamine system works slightly differently than in people without the disorder. Prescription stimulants can bring brain dopamine function back to normal and help people with ADHD focus better and pay more attention.

Stimulants can be addictive and dangerous when abused. In fact, abusing stimulants can cause chest pain, stomachaches, and feelings of fear or anger. They can also cause seizures and irregular heartbeats that can cause death.