Prescription drugs help millions of people live longer and healthier lives. But if you don’t take your medicines as directed, or if you take someone else’s medications, the results can be deadly. Unfortunately, prescription drug abuse is all too common in the United States.
Misuse of prescription medications affects people of all ages and races. The deaths of Michael Jackson and Heath Ledger have been blamed on dangerous combinations of prescribed drugs. But medication abuse can affect ordinary people—maybe even someone you know—as well as celebrities. A federal survey in 2008 found that about 1 in 5 people ages 12 and up said they’d taken a prescription drug for nonmedical purposes at least once in their lifetimes.
People abuse prescription drugs for many reasons, including to get high, lose weight or build muscle. But this abuse carries a serious risk of addiction. And it can lead to other health problems, including irregular heartbeats, seizures, breathing problems and personality changes. Car accidents and physical injury are other concerns.
“There’s a myth that prescription drugs are safe because they come from a drugstore. But when people take them outside of a doctor’s supervision, we don’t necessarily know how dangerous they can be,” says Dr. Wilson Compton of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. “A dose that’s perfectly safe for one person who’s taken the drug for a long time may be potentially lethal for another. And when you combine drugs with other substances, like alcohol, you’re taking a great risk.”
The 3 categories of drugs most commonly abused are stimulants, depressants and painkillers. Stimulants—including Adderall, Dexedrine and Ritalin—are often prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Depressants—such as Ativan, Valium and Xanax—are used to treat anxiety, panic attacks and sleep disorders.
When taken exactly as prescribed, prescription painkillers like opioids can effectively manage pain and rarely cause addiction. But because of abuse, opioids and other prescription painkillers, sometimes taken in combination with other drugs, cause nearly half of overdose deaths. Opioids include morphine, codeine, hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (such as OxyContin, Percodan or Percocet).
Opioid use among high school students is a major concern. “About 1 in 10 twelfth graders report non-medical use of Vicodin during the past year, and about 1 in 20 abused OxyContin,” says Compton.
NIH has several studies under way to learn more about prescription drug abuse and who’s at risk for addiction. “We’re also working to develop better treatments for pain that might be less addictive or less likely to be abused,” says Compton.
If you have prescription medications, take them exactly as directed. And if you have prescriptions for commonly abused drugs, maintain control of them so they don’t tempt visitors. “It appears that most people who are abusing prescription drugs are not getting them directly from physicians. In many cases, the drugs are obtained from family or friends who have prescriptions,” says Compton.
Make sure to use prescription medications the right way, just as the doctor ordered.