PEOPLE HELPING PEOPLE: Beating prescription abuse

The newest drug epidemic is as close as your own medicine cabinet or nightstand. Prescription drug abuse is rapidly increasing, fueled by how easily available these drugs are. Almost every home has current or left over medications sitting around, unmonitored.

Teens report that it is very easy to access prescription drugs — from their own homes and the homes of friends and relatives. Some youth even sell their own prescription medications to peers. “Pharm” parties are common. Teens bring a variety of pills that get tossed together in a bowl. Party-goers just grab a handful and start popping them. The results can be dangerous.

Many people think that abusing prescription drugs is safer than using illicit drugs like heroin because the manufacturing of prescription drugs is regulated or because they are prescribed by doctors. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean that these drugs are safe for someone who was not prescribed the drug or when they are taken in ways other than as prescribed.

There is a reason why prescription drugs are intended to be taken under the direction of a doctor: if used improperly they can be dangerous. Teens are making the decision to abuse prescription medicines based on misinformation. Prescription drugs can have dangerous short- and long-term health consequences when used incorrectly or by someone other than for whom they were intended.

Prescription drugs can have powerful effects in the brain and body, and they act on the same brain sites as illegal drugs. Painkillers act on the same sites in the brain as heroin; prescription stimulants have effects in common with cocaine and meth. People sometimes take the medications in ways that can be very dangerous in both the short and long term (e.g., crushing pills and snorting or injecting the contents). Abusing prescription drugs is illegal—and that includes sharing prescriptions with friends.

The most commonly abused prescription drugs include opioids (such as the pain relievers Oxycontin and Vicodin), central nervous system depressants (e.g., Xanax, Valium), and stimulants (e.g., Concerta, Adderall). Drugs available without a prescription—also known as over-the-counter drugs—can also be abused. DXM (dextromethorphan), the active cough suppressant found in many over-the-counter cough and cold medications, is one example. It is sometimes abused to get high, which requires large doses (more than what is on the package instructions) that can be dangerous.

Virtually every medication presents some risk of undesirable side effects, sometimes even serious ones. Doctors consider the potential benefits and risks to each patient before prescribing medications. They take into account things like the drug’s form and dose, possible side effects, and the potential for addiction or withdrawal. People who abuse drugs might not understand how these factors may affect them or that prescription drugs do more than cause a high, help them stay awake, help them relax, or relieve pain. When people who abuse oxycodone (Oxycontin) crush and inhale the pills, a 12-hour dose hits their central nervous system all at once—which increases their risk of addiction and overdose.

Prescription drugs are designed to treat a particular illness or condition, but they often have other side effects that can be dangerous. Oxycontin stops pain, but it also causes constipation and drowsiness and slows breathing. Stimulants such as Adderall increase attention but also raise blood pressure and heart rate. These side effects can be made worse when prescription drugs are not taken as prescribed or are abused in combination with other substances—including alcohol, other prescription drugs, and even over-the-counter drugs, such as cold medicines. Mixing alcohol and benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium), both of which slow breathing, could stop breathing altogether, requiring emergency care, or worse—it could be fatal.

Studies show that when people take a medication as it is prescribed for a medical condition—such as pain or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—they usually do not become addicted, because the medication is prescribed in dosages and forms that are considered safe for that person.

The drug makes the person feel better, not high. But medications that affect the brain can change the way it functions — especially when they are taken repeatedly or in large doses. They can alter the reward system, making it harder to feel good without the drug and can lead to intense cravings, which make it hard to stop using. This is no different from what can happen when someone takes illicit drugs — and addiction and dangerous withdrawal symptoms are real possibilities.

Parents have an important role in preventing medication abuse. Keep prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications that have abuse potential in a locked box, drawer or cabinet. Discard unused prescription medications properly. One way to do this is to mix surplus pills into kitty litter or leftover food that you are throwing out.

Some communities in Gwinnett sponsor Drug Take Back programs several times a year, providing places for you to drop off old medications. Assuring these drugs are not readily available will protect your children and their friends. Talk to your children about the dangers of misusing these drugs. Monitor medications so you know if any are missing and be alert to signs that your child may be under the influence of these or other drugs. Seek help early if you suspect any kind of drug use. Youth are surprisingly well-informed about a wide variety of prescription and OTC drugs. They research primary and side effects on the Internet. Shouldn’t you be even more well-informed?

There are many websites that provide information about prescription drug abuse and prevention. GUIDE is a 501(c)(3) non-profit substance abuse prevention agency.

For more information, visit www.guideinc.org or contact Ari Russell, Executive Director of GUIDE, at 678-377-4132 or via email at ari@guideinc.org.