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What is Prescription drug abuse?
If prescription drugs are so risky, then why are they prescribed? Prescription stimulants and sedatives have a legit medical use. Stimulants like Adderall help people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) concentrate and focus. Meanwhile, sedatives like Xanax can help people with panic disorder or who are recovering from alcohol abuse.
Despite their legitimate medical roles, both types of prescriptions are “Drug abuse” doesn’t just describe illicit drug use. Any time someone uses a drug outside of its purpose or the instructions of a healthcare provider is engaged in drug abuse. Taking a drug when you don’t need it, giving a pill to a friend who’s stressed, deliberately taking a larger dose … all these behaviors qualify as drug abuse.
When used as directed, prescription tranquilizers and stimulants are relatively safe. When abused? They’re both quick paths to addiction.
What are Prescription Stimulants?
Amphetamine has been used as a drug since its discovery in the early 20th century. Used to treat everything from mood disorders to obesity, the drug was widely available until laws placed them under control in 1970. Amphetamine is related to its cousin, methamphetamine, but is less powerful.
Today, prescription stimulants are most often used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Unfortunately, drugs like Adderall, Dexedrine, and Ritalin are often abused for their effects. Although less intense than methamphetamines, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says prescription stimulants increase the production of dopamine. Used in the body’s reward system, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that creates good feelings when we engage in certain behaviors.
Like other stimulants, prescription amphetamines can increase the amount of dopamine usually produced in the body, creating a pleasurable rush. This rush often reinforces certain behaviors, leading to dependence and addiction.
There’s another, more troubling reason amphetamines are abused. College can be a particularly competitive environment, and some college students abuse prescription amphetamines as “study drugs.” While the drug will keep them up later, it’s ultimately pointless; studies have yet to prove these drugs affect performance, memory, or academic standing. At lower doses, NIDA states prescription stimulants create a euphoric rush (thanks to the dopamine release), increased heart rate, and higher blood pressure. Higher doses come with riskier effects, including high body temperature, seizures, and even heart failure.
Repeated abuse can cause wild mood swings, paranoia, and psychosis. There’s a risk of overdose as well. Finally, amphetamines are addictive, too. Like other drugs, repeated abuse causes the body to develop a tolerance to the drug’s effects, meaning users have to take more amphetamines to experience the same effect. Eventually, this behavior pattern turns to dependence and addiction.
How are Prescription Sedatives abused?
There are three kinds of common prescription sedatives:
Benzodiazepines: Also known as benzos, a family of drugs that includes commonly prescribed medications like Klonopin, Valium, and Xanax.
Sedative Hypnotics: Include Lunesta and Ambien
Barbiturates: A family of drugs which include Nembutal. Barbiturates have largely been supplanted by benzos due to the danger of overdose.
Prescription sedatives generally work by increasing the amount of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, in the brain. GABA decreases brain activity, which is why these drugs are useful in treating panic disorders, sleep disorders, and in some cases, alcohol withdrawal.
These medications can be very powerful – according to NIDA, most first-time users experience effects like sleepiness and a lack of coordination when they’re first used. Plus, they come with a risk of addiction … even when used while following a doctor’s orders.
Like other addictive drugs, it’s easy to build up a tolerance to sedatives. Over time, the initial dose of the drug will lose its effect, meaning the user has to take more of the drug more often to experience the same effect. This is especially common when sedatives are abused for recreational use.
Sedatives are particularly dangerous when combined with alcohol and other drugs, and they should never be mixed with other substances. In 2019, NIDA reported 16 percent of that year’s overdose deaths involved a combination of opioids and benzos. Like opioids, benzos can slow breathing to the point where a person suffocates.
Treating sedative abuse must be done very carefully. Detox is critically important in prescription sedative addiction – the substance must be allowed to gradually leave the user’s body in a controlled fashion due to the risk of seizures, increased heart rate, and agitation. NIDA cautions anyone struggling with addiction to these drugs should never attempt to quit their use on their own.
Can Prescription Addiction be treated?
Treating addiction to prescription stimulants and sedatives can be challenging. Withdrawal from prescription medication can be complex - particularly with benzodiazepines. However, drug and alcohol treatment can help a person recover from prescription abuse.
Professional, supervised detox makes the withdrawal period much easier to bear. Addiction rehab teaches positive coping mechanisms where sedative abuse and stimulant abuse aren’t needed to participate in life. Rehab is also a place to join a community of people working towards the same goal of freeing themselves from addiction.
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