Prescription drugs – they’re medicine – so what if a person takes them differently than prescribed?
This is a common question. Not only that, but many people believe abusing prescription drugs is “safer” than abusing illegal drugs, such as heroin, for example. There is a presumption that because the medication is prescribed, it is somehow “safe.”
Well, it is safe – but only for the person for whom it is prescribed. It is not safe for that person, however, if taken in quantities beyond the prescribed amounts, nor is it safe for someone else to be taking a person’s prescribed medications.
Prescription Drugs Work in the Brain
Doctors prescribe drugs for the individual and decide the dosage for that individual based on their age, size, medical history, other medications being used and possible side-effects. They are prescribed to treat diseases, pain and other disorders. Many of the drugs prescribed are designed to change a person’s brain chemistry – drugs to treat pain or mental disorders, such as ADHD or anxiety, for example.
This brain chemistry involves the brain’s 100 billion neurons, also known as nerve cells, neurotransmitters, also known as chemical messengers, and receptors. Neurons “use” neurotransmitters and receptors to communicate with one another in the brain and to and from other neurons throughout the body. Neurotransmitters deliver their messages by attaching to special places on nerve cells called receptors. There are many types of neurotransmitters, and each one carries a specific message. Each type of neurotransmitter has a specific receptor. Prescription drugs act by mimicking certain neurotransmitters or receptors.
Studies show that when a person takes a medication as it is prescribed for their medical condition – such as pain or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – that person usually does not abuse or become addicted to the medication because the medication is prescribed in dosages and forms that are considered safe for that person. In this manner, the drug is able to do what it was designed to do – counterbalance a problem by changing brain circuitry in order to make the person feel better, not high. But when a prescribed medication is taken in different quantities or when the symptoms for which the drug was prescribed are not present, the prescription medication can affect the brain in ways very similar to illegal drugs. (NIDA Drug Facts: Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications)
For example, “stimulants such as Ritalin, increase alertness, attention and energy the same way cocaine does – by boosting the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Opioid pain relievers, like OxyContin, attach to the same cell receptors targeted by illegal opioids, such as heroin. Prescription depressants produce sedating or calming effects in the same manner as the club drugs GHB and rohypnol, by enhancing the actions of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). When taken in very high doses, dextromethorphan acts on the same glutamate receptors as PCP or ketamine, producing similar out-of-body experiences,” according to NIDA Drug Facts: Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications.
When abused, all of these classes of drugs directly or indirectly cause a pleasurable increase in the amount of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway, which is often why people – especially young people due to developmental brain changes occurring from ages 12-early 20s – take prescription medications of this sort. They enjoy that “high.” For example, when a person uses oxycodone (OxyContin) – crushing and inhaling the pills – a 12-hour dose hits their central nervous system all at once. Thus, it’s important to understand that altering the brain’s reward system makes it harder to feel good without the drug and can lead to intense cravings. These intense cravings (and the other brain changes that occur with prescription medication abuse) make it hard to stop using, which in turn can lead to addiction. (This is no different from what can happen when a person abuses illegal drugs.)
Prescription Drugs Mixed With Other Substances
When taken in combination with other substances, such as alcohol, other prescription drugs and even over-the-counter drugs, such as sleep aides, the side effects of a prescription drug can be made worse. For instance, alcohol and benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium) both can slow breathing, but when taken in combination, they can actually stop breathing. (NIDA for Teens: Prescription Drug Abuse Facts)
For More Information on Prescription Drug Abuse
For more information, check out the following NIDA resources, from which much of the content for this post was taken:
- What Are the Common Misconceptions About Drug Abuse?
- How Are Prescription Drugs Abused?
- How Do Prescription Drugs Work in the Brain?
- How do Prescription Drugs Affect the Body, and What are Common Effects?
- NIDA Drug Facts: Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications
Please Share This With Others – Our Young People are Especially Affected
This is an important message to pass along – especially to young people. “Among youth who are 12 to 17 years old, 7.4 percent reported past-year non-medical use of prescription medications. According to the 2011 Monitoring the Future survey, prescription and over-the-counter drugs are among the most commonly abused drugs by 12th graders, after alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco,” writes NIDA for Teens: Prescription Drug Abuse Facts.