Let’s Talk About Prescription Drug Misuse
Note: This article was written by Rachel Fisman-Guarascio, a 3rd year undergraduate at McMaster University who volunteers as a Team Lead for the Student Wellness Centre’s Substance Use Wellness Outreach Team.
About 1 in 5 Canadians over the age of 15 years old use psychoactive prescription drugs in some form, according to the 2017 Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs survey. You might think that because prescription drugs have medical applications, they are not as dangerous. However, while prescription drugs can be helpful to those with a legitimate need and a doctor’s guidance, they have serious and potentially deadly health risks if taken in a way that hasn’t been recommended by a doctor.
Why do people misuse prescription drugs, and why is it dangerous to take drugs without a prescription?
Prescription drug misuse is the use of medication not prescribed to you, in a way other than prescribed (for example, by taking too much, mixing with other medications, or snorting). People might misuse prescription drugs to get high, to try to lose weight or study more effectively, to cope with anxiety or stress, or to fit in with peers.
A doctor will only prescribe what they feel is the right dose for an individual’s medical condition and circumstances. Doctors will provide detailed information about how a drug should be taken, and what to avoid while taking it. They can closely monitor patients for side effects, signs of addiction, and overall physical and behavioural changes, and adjust the dose or medication accordingly. Without the personalization and continuous guidance from a doctor, it is far more likely that someone will develop an addiction or use the medication in risky ways.
Additionally, when medications are prescribed to treat mental health disorders like anxiety and depression, they are meant to be taken as a short-term aid in conjunction with talk therapy. Medications will never address or remove the underlying causes of a mental health disorder, and taking them without a long-term, preventative treatment like therapy can ultimately worsen one’s condition.
Which drugs are misused?
The most commonly misused prescription drugs fall into 3 classes.
Examples: oxycodone (Oxycontin), hydrocodone (Vicodin) and meperidine (Demerol)
Medical uses: Opioids are prescribed to treat pain, or to relieve coughs or diarrhea
How they work: Opioids attach to receptors in the central nervous system (the system involving the brain and spinal cord), which prevents the brain from receiving pain signals.
- Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants (also known as sedatives)
Examples: phenobarbital (Luminal), diazepam (Valium), and alprazolam (Xanax)
Medical uses: CNS depressants treat anxiety, tension, panic disorders, and sleep disorders, in conjunction with talk therapy
How they work: CNS depressants increase the activity of a neurotransmitter called GABA in the brain. This inhibits brain activity and results in a drowsy or calming effect.
Examples: methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall)
Medical uses: Stimulants treat narcolepsy and ADHD
How they work: Stimulants increase the activity of neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, which are associated with increased alertness, attention, and energy.
What are the dangers of misusing prescription drugs?
Opioids can cause mood changes, nausea, a decreased ability to think, decreased respiratory function, coma, and death. Risks increase when opioids are taken with other substances like alcohol, antihistamines, and sedatives.
CNS depressants, when abruptly stopped or reduced, can lead to seizures. Taking them in conjunction with other medicines (e.g., prescription painkillers, some over-the-counter cold/allergy medicines) can slow a person’s heartbeat and breathing and can be fatal.
Stimulants can lead to heart failure, seizures, insomnia, increased blood pressure, hallucinations, and mood changes when misused. The risk is higher when stimulants are mixed with other medicines (even over-the-counter ones).
The best treatment option depends on the type of medication being misused.
Opioid addiction treatments include medications combined with behavioral therapy.
CNS depressant addiction treatment includes medically supervised detoxification combined with behavioural therapy.
Stimulant addictions can be treated with behavioral therapies. Studies are underway to discover effective medications for treatment.
How to help those with addiction:
Do you know someone who you think might be struggling with prescription drug misuse and addiction?
When supporting this person, it is important to recognize addiction as a medical condition. Try to communicate with care and compassion and use medically accurate words rather than slang when describing drug use.
You can also offer information and help to find professional resources. The Student Wellness Centre website has compiled a list of self-help groups and community resources for those struggling with drug addiction, which you can find here.
ReferencesAddictions, Alcohol, Cannabis, & Substances
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