This article has been medically reviewed by Dr Robert Lefever, a world-leading addictions specialist.
What are prescription drugs?
Prescription drugs are medicinal drugs that require a doctor’s or a physician’s instructions before use. They are different from over-the-counter drugs, which do not necessarily require a prescription. To avert potential misuse and abuse, most governments have put prescription drugs as controlled substances. As a controlled substance, prescription drugs should only be purchased and sold when a doctor has prescribed them; buying and selling them outside prescription is illegal and attracts stiff penalties.
How are prescription drugs used?
Prescription drugs are strong medications that require a physician’s guidance. In addition, with many types of health conditions, people need specialised drugs to treat a particular ailment.
Prescription drugs commonly fall into generalised categories. In the generalised categories, prescription drugs are further put into drug classes. The drug classes consist of drugs that have similar characteristics and treat related health conditions.
The commonly-prescribed drug classes include:
- Non- benzodiazepine depressants
Opioids are derived from the poppy plant. They are pain-relieving drugs that work by affecting opioid receptors in the brain. As a result of attaching to the receptors, the pain perception by the brain is inhibited, and the pressure for a feel-good effect is boosted. They are commonly referred to as painkillers, and by blocking pain signals in the brain, opioids typically treat moderate to severe pain. Commonly, opioids are prescribed to treat pain resulting from serious injuries, cancer, post-surgery, and other health conditions.
On the flip side, opioid use comes with some risks. By using opioids regularly, you may tend to tolerate the effects resulting in opioids dependence. However, when you become dependent on opioids, you may require higher and frequent doses of opioid drugs. In addition, using opioids for an extended period might lead to addiction. In addition, opioids can make you feel calm and relaxed, and for that reason, they tend to be addictive. Finally, you may experience side effects from opioids use, such as constipation, nausea, dizziness, and slowed breathing, among others.
Common types of Opioids
Codeine: Probably the most popular among opioids, codeine is commonly prescribed to treat moderate pain among many people. It is also used in combination with other drugs to treat flu. It goes by brand names such as aspirin and codeine.
Other examples of opioids include fentanyl, morphine, Percocet, Vicodin, and oxycodone.
As the name suggests, stimulant drugs work by stimulating the brain to increase the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is a chemical responsible for reward and pleasurable effects, while norepinephrine impacts heart rate, blood vessels, blood pressure, and breathing.
Prescription stimulants drugs are used to manage ADHD conditions. ADHD is a condition that affects both children and adults by causing inattentiveness and hyperactivity. Also, stimulants treat people with sleeping disorders, a condition is known as narcolepsy. Prescription stimulant drugs increase alertness, wakefulness, attention, and energy. As a result, people with ADHD can have raised awareness. Additionally, people using prescription stimulant drugs may experience euphoric feelings and a heightened sense of energy.
When used over a long time, prescription stimulant drugs can be habit-forming. As a user, you might end up building tolerance and ultimately becoming dependent on them. The chances of addiction to prescription stimulant drugs are high if you use them outside the prescription’s guidelines. Despite prescription benefits, you can experience some side effects such as anxiety, paranoia, mood changes, and addiction.
What are some of the standard prescription stimulant drugs?
- Amphetamine combination
Meant to increase attentiveness and alertness in people with ADHD and narcolepsy, amphetamines may be found in the following forms:
They increase blood pressure and are also used to reduce appetite. A common methamphetamine brand name is Desoxyn.
They help improve focus by enhancing the accumulation of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. They may be found under the following brand names:
- Ritalin LA
Benzodiazepines are categorized as depressants. Primarily, benzodiazepines are used in the treatment of anxiety and also other mental health conditions. As depressants, benzodiazepines slow down the brain’s functions and are very helpful to people with conditions caused by increased activity of nerves in the brain.
In the brain, benzodiazepines treatment works by increasing the activity of GABA. Being a neurotransmitter chemical, GABA acts by reducing the activities of nerves in the brain, ultimately reducing brain activity and producing a relaxing effect. Benzodiazepines are commonly used to treat the following conditions:
- Panic attacks
- Muscle spasms
- Alcohol withdrawal
- Premenstrual syndrome
Just like other depressants, benzodiazepine drugs can have been habit-forming. In addition, when used for a long time, you may grow a tolerance to benzodiazepine which means you will need larger doses than the previous ones to be effective.
As tolerance builds, you may use find yourself increasing the doses leading to dependence. Additionally, benzodiazepine drugs are addictive. They are commonly abused owing to the high-feeling effect they produce. Still, benzodiazepine drugs can be abused by mixing them with drugs. For example, some people mix them with alcohol to counter the anxiety induced by alcohol, which is a dangerous move that can lead to alcohol poisoning.
What are the common side effects of benzodiazepines?
Various side effects are associated with the use of benzodiazepines. They include:
- Memory loss
- Drowsiness and dizziness
- Dry mouth
- Increased appetite and to some people decreased appetite
- Reduced libido
Recently, nonbenzodiazepine medication has been used to treat people suffering from insufficient sleep or insomnia. Nonbenzodiazepine works by reducing the time you take to fall asleep. In insomnia treatment, nonbenzodiazepine’s effects are similar to those of benzodiazepine. However, nonbenzodiazepines produce minimal depression, and hence they are safer compared to benzodiazepines.
Withdrawal symptoms of benzodiazepine are less common and milder compared to those of benzodiazepine drugs. Nonbenzodiazepine treatment has a low risk of dependence and abuse compared to benzodiazepines.
Although they are safer than benzodiazepine, nonbenzodiazepine medication is not recommended for long-term use. Some nonbenzodiazepine drugs include:
- Ambien (Zolpidem)
- Sonata (Zaleplon)
- Lunesta (Eszopiclone)
Addiction to Prescription Drugs
The majority of prescription drugs can be addictive. The fact that a doctor prescribes a medication does not mean it is entirely safe. Whether used as per prescription guidance or outside prescription, some drugs are addictive. Triggering an increase of dopamine levels, opioids and stimulants prescription drugs are more addictive than others.
Opioids and stimulants affect the brain reward system by increasing the levels of dopamine. In most cases, the feel-good effect brought about by opioids and stimulants lasts for a short time. However, as the feel-good effect fades away, the body will crave more and more drugs. As you take high doses, your body builds tolerance to the drugs, meaning you will be required to take more medications than the previous to feel the same effects. With increased intake of the drug, you develop dependence and ultimately addiction.
Also, prescription depressants such as benzodiazepines and nonbenzodiazepines can be addictive. As they impact the brain to produce a calm and relaxed feeling, you may grow tolerance as the body motivates you to take the drug more and more.
In using prescription drugs outside of prescription guidelines, your risk of addiction is higher. Unfortunately, some people abuse prescription drugs for recreation as they seek the high effect.
If you are having any trouble with prescription drugs, you can get help by reaching out to a professional physician. Please call 0203 955 7700, and an experienced advisor is available to speak to and provide support.
Why are prescription drugs classified as controlled substances?
Controlled substances are medications with a higher risk of causing physical and mental dependence or severe side effects. In addition, most prescription drugs have a habit-forming and have a likelihood for addiction.
In the UK, prescription drugs such as codeine and Adderall are classified as class B controlled substances. As controlled substances, prescription drugs are sold and purchased only when there is a doctor’s prescription. It is illegal to sell and buy prescription drugs outside a professional prescription. The primary purpose of controlling prescription drugs is to protect people from potential harm from these drugs.
Can you overdose on prescription drugs?
Absolutely yes! You can easily overdose on prescription drugs. Taking more than the prescribed dose can cause life-threatening effects. If you are not keen on instructions, you might unintentionally overdose by taking an excess dose.
However, many people have been overdosing on prescription drugs as they seek the high effect. Excessive high doses can lead to severe consequences. Some of the most expected overdose symptoms include:
- Rapid breathing
- Panic attacks
- Muscle pains
If you notice the symptoms mentioned above and you suspect prescription drugs overdose, you should contact emergency services or seek help from a medical professional.
How are prescription drugs abused?
If you have concerns that people around you may be abusing drugs, you have a reason to be worried. In Europe, UK is among the leading nations with a high rate of people frequently abusing prescription drugs. Using the 2018/19 public survey conducted by NHS, PHE, and the UK government, 20.3% of young adults between 16 and 24 years had abused drugs. Further, 9.4% of adults between 16 to 59 years have used drugs at one time in their life. People can abuse prescription drugs in different ways.
Sharing prescription drugs is a common way of prescription drug abuse. It is not uncommon for patients to give their medication to a friend with similar symptoms. For instance, if a patient was prescribed codeine to treat pain, they may be tempted to offer the same medicine to a loved one who has pain.
Secondly, taking a prescription without following prescription instructions, for example, taking more doses than the one prescribed, or crushing tablets to a solution that can be injected instead of taking them orally.
Third, taking medication for the high- effect. Some prescription drugs such as stimulants and opioids affect the reward system that triggers the brain to release dopamine, a chemical for increased effects. In Europe, the habit of using prescription drugs is gaining popularity, especially among the young generation.
Fourth, taking prescription drugs increases alertness and wakefulness. Most common among college students, abuse of Adderall, a stimulant prescription drug, is rampant. Students use Adderall to help them focus and improve concentration. On the same note, professionals with stress from work also commonly abuse Adderall.
Lastly, prescription drugs are abused by mixing them with other drugs such as alcohol. A culture of mixing alcohol and codeine to enhance the effects of the medicines is rampant among young people. Some of the mixtures are known as coke, paste among others. Contrary, prescription drugs that treat anxiety are also used to counter the effects of alcohol. Mixing prescription drugs can lead to alcohol poisoning. In some cases, the effects of mixing prescription drugs have proved to be life-threatening, and in worst cases, they may lead to death.
How to prevent prescription drug abuse?
- You should never increase or lower your doses without consulting your doctor.
- You should always read carefully and follow instructions as per the doctor’s guidelines. Where you have any doubts, go back to the doctor for clarification.
- Always complete the dosage even if you feel like you have recovered.
- You should never attempt to change the form of taking medicine, for instance, crushing a tablet to make a solution to inject yourself. Likewise, you should keep prescription drugs out of children’s reach as they may accidentally consume the drugs.
- If you have any history of drug abuse, you should honestly make it known to the doctor.
- You should never share prescription drugs with anyone, even if you are experiencing similar symptoms. Let them first visit a doctor.
- You should never mix prescription drugs with other substances and alcohol. The consequences may be severe.
Suppose you suspect or are worried that a member of your family, friend, or workmate is abusing prescription drugs and would like help. Please call 0203 955 7700, and an experienced advisor is available to speak to and provide help.