Prescription Drugs

A pile of prescription drugs.©Shutterstock/Nenov Brothers Images

Also known as:

Opioids: Happy Pills, OC, Oxy, Oxycotton, Percs, and Vikes
Depressants: A-minus, Barbs, Candy, Downers, Phennies, Reds, Red Birds, Seeping Pills, Tooies, Tranks, Yellow Jackets, Yellows, and Zombie Pills
Stimulants: Bennies, Black Beauties, Hearts, Roses, Skippy, The Smart Drug, Speed, and Vitamin R, and Uppers

What are prescription drugs?

Prescription drugs are often strong medications, which is why they require a prescription from a doctor or dentist. There are three kinds of prescription drugs that are commonly misused:

  • Opioids—used to relieve pain, such as Vicodin®, OxyContin®, or codeine
  • Depressants—used to relieve anxiety or help a person sleep, such as Valium® or Xanax®
  • Stimulants— used for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), such as Adderall® and Ritalin®

Prescription drug misuse has become a large public health problem, because misuse can lead to addiction, and even overdose deaths.

What Makes Prescription Drug Misuse Unsafe

Every medication has some risk for harmful effects, sometimes serious ones. Doctors and dentists consider the potential benefits and risks to each patient before prescribing medications and take into account a lot of different factors, described below. When prescription drugs are misused, they can be just as dangerous as drugs that are made illegally.

  • Personal information. Before prescribing a drug, health providers consider a person's weight, how long they've been prescribed the medication, other medical conditions, and what other medications they are taking. Someone misusing prescription drugs may overload their system or put themselves at risk for dangerous drug interactions that can cause seizures, coma, or even death.
  • Form and dose. Doctors know how long it takes for a pill or capsule to dissolve in the stomach, release drugs to the blood, and reach the brain. When misused, prescription drugs are sometimes taken in larger amounts or in ways that change the way the drug works in the body and brain, putting the person at greater risk for an overdose. For example, when people who misuse OxyContin® crush and inhale the pills, a dose that normally works over the course of 12 hours hits the central nervous system all at once. This effect increases the risk for addiction and overdose.
  • Side effects. Prescription drugs are designed to treat a specific illness or condition, but they often affect the body in other ways, some of which can be uncomfortable, and in some cases, dangerous. These are called side effects.  Side effects can be worse when prescription drugs are not taken as prescribed or are used in combination with other substances. See more on side effects below.

How Prescription Drugs are Misused

 1 Taking someone else's prescription to self-medicate. 2 Taking a prescription medication in a way other than prescribed. 3 Taking a medication to get high.
  • Taking someone else’s prescription medication, even if it is for a medical reason (such as to relieve pain, to stay awake, or to fall asleep).
  • Taking a prescription medication in a way other than prescribed—for instance, taking more than the prescribed dose or taking it more often, or crushing pills into powder to snort or inject the drug. 
  • Taking your own prescription in a way that it is not meant to be taken is also misuse. This includes taking more of the medication than prescribed or changing its form—for example, breaking or crushing a pill or capsule and then snorting the powder.
  • Taking the prescription medication to get “high.” 
  • Mixing it with alcohol or certain other drugs. Your pharmacist can tell you what other drugs are safe to use with specific prescription drugs. 
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