What You Need to Know About Prescription Drug Abuse

By Myra Davis

Prescription drug abuse is a problem that parents often overlook or never even consider. The word “prescription” may seem innocent in comparison to “street drug,” but the abuse of these types of drugs should not be taken lightly. Although it is not just a childhood problem, kids are often the greatest abusers of prescription medications. Because this can have deadly consequences, it is crucial that parents educate themselves about prescription drug abuse. This knowledge will help them take decisive action to prevent or stop it from becoming a problem in their home.

What is Prescription Drug Abuse?

When people take legal drugs prescribed by their doctor and use them in a way that is not prescribed or they use drugs that were prescribed to someone else, it is called prescription drug abuse. When this occurs, the consequences can be as dangerous to one’s health and problematic for one’s entire family or household as if they were consuming illegal or “street” drugs. Even legal use of certain prescription drugs can result in addiction or other problems, and this threat becomes more serious when it comes to people who use them not in accordance with a doctor’s instructions. Typical types of drugs that people abuse include not only painkillers but also stimulants and psychoactive medications such as anxiety-reducing drugs.

When it comes to prescription painkillers, abusers may choose from a wide variety of drugs, including hydrocodone, morphine-derived drugs, and oxycodone. Brand names for hydrocodone include Vicodin, while oxycodone may be recognized by such names as OxyContin or Percocet. Morphine-derived drugs come under various brand names like Avinza or MS Contin. Popular psychoactive drugs that fall prey to abuse include benzodiazepine to combat anxiety or produce a “high.” Ativan, Xanax, and Valium are three brand names that fall under this category. Certain methamphetamines that are abused are useful in combating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and come under brand names like Desoxyn. Since they are methamphetamine-based drugs, these are also useful as stimulants. Other commonly abused stimulants include Ritalin, which is derived from methylphenidate, and amphetamine-based Adderall. Ambien, whose generic name is zolpidem, and Lunesta, whose generic name is eszopiclone, are two sleep-aid drugs that are often used recreationally. Marijuana, which has become legal in many places as a prescription drug, has thus also fallen under the category of prescription drugs that are popular for abuse.

The most common danger that comes with abusing prescription drugs is addiction. Over time, a person can also develop a tolerance for the drug, which means they will need more of it to achieve the same effect. In the case of an addiction, it makes stopping the use of the drug difficult because of a variety of problems with withdrawal symptoms. Serious health problems, overdosing, and death are also potential consequences of prescription drug abuse. Abuse of opiate-based painkillers like oxycodone or morphine can result in death from heart damage or slowed respiration or respiratory arrest as a result of overdosing. Methamphetamine-based drugs can lead to heart attacks or strokes. Abuse of Xanax and similar drugs can result in dangerously low heart rate or blood pressure.

The Rise of Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drugs such as Vicodin and other painkiller or narcotic drugs have become more popular targets for abuse than street drugs, and only marijuana is more popular for recreational use. Deaths from prescription drug overdoses have skyrocketed since 1999, far outpacing deaths from street drugs, and they primarily strike people between the ages of 35 and 55. However, drug use is also skyrocketing in the 19-to-25 age group, and this age group is the biggest recreational consumer of such drugs as codeine-based cough relief products. Prescription drug abuse has also increased among teenagers, and college students are increasingly using prescription stimulants to help with their long study sessions. Twenty-five percent of college students are said to be using prescription drugs illegally as of 2008, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). While little is known about why it is increasing, there is speculation. One theory is that prescription drugs are in close proximity to their users, such as in a medicine cabinet that the person can easily reach. Another potential cause is that people may see prescription drugs as safer than street drugs, especially since street drugs are often “cut” with rat poison and other dangerous “filler” chemicals.


While prescription drug abuse and recreational use is on the rise, it is possible for parents, families, and friends to fight this problem and help others avoid or free themselves from this potentially destructive behavior. Storing medicine in a locked cabinet is one of the more basic steps a household can take to prevent children and/or their friends from gaining access to medications. If a doctor has prescribed drugs for a child, parents should restrict access to the drug and control its administration so that the child only takes it according to the doctor’s instructions. If disposing of unused drugs in the trash, be sure to mix them with undesirable materials such as kitty litter in a sealed container. Wherever possible, avoid disposing of unused drugs and instead look for community medicine disposal or take-back programs. Most importantly, parents should educate their children about the dangers of prescription drug abuse and set a proper example by not abusing them themselves.

How to Help

The first step toward helping a child or a friend with a prescription drug abuse problem is to know the signs. A sudden decrease in socialization or changes in one’s mood or habits, a loss of interest in a person’s known hobbies or other interests, or a reduced level of attention to one’s hygiene or personal appearance can all be signs of drug abuse. Slurred speech, reduced reflexes, dilated or constricted pupils, delusional behavior or paranoia, rapid and unexplained weight loss, or an onset of hyperactivity are other potential signs of a drug problem. When it comes to any form of drug abuse, including prescription drugs, the solution lies with support and treatment. Support must come from parents, friends, family, and the community at large. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a toll-free hotline available 24 hours a day, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), which offers confidential help for those who are trapped in a cycle of drug abuse, including prescription medications.

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