Updated on February 6, 2024
8 min read

Prescription Drugs

Key Takeaways

What are Prescription Medications?

Prescription drugs are for medical use only. Doctors typically prescribe these drugs to treat:

  • Pain
  • Discomfort
  • Sleep disorders
  • Mental health disorders
  • Pain relief after surgeries

These medications are considered safe when used correctly and in the right dosages. However, some people misuse prescription medications, leading to tolerance, dependence, and addiction.

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Types of Prescription Drugs

The most commonly misused prescription medications fall into four categories:

1. Benzodiazepines (CNS Depressants)

Benzodiazepines (benzos) are prescription medications that treat:

  • Mood disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks

They can also be used as muscle relaxers. Benzos are effective and safe when used correctly. However, the medications are very addictive.

Benzodiazepines act as sedatives, slowing down the body's functions. The drugs work by increasing the effect of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a chemical in the brain. GABA reduces activity in the areas of the brain responsible for rational thought.

There are many different types of benzodiazepines. However, these medications are separated into short-acting and long-acting benzos.

2. Nonbenzodiazepines (Z-Drugs)

Nonbenzodiazepines are also called Z-drugs. They are a class of psychoactive drugs with benzodiazepine-like effects on the body. Nonbenzodiazepines are often prescribed as sleep medications.

3. Stimulants (Uppers)

Stimulants are prescription medications that increase:

  • Energy
  • Alertness
  • Interest
  • Enthusiasm

They work by increasing activity in the central nervous system (CNS). While they are safe when used as prescribed, stimulants are some of the most widely misused drugs in the United States.

4. Opioids (Narcotics)

Opioids are a group of prescription drugs that relieve pain. There are three different forms of opioids, including:

  • Natural
  • Synthetic
  • Semi-synthetic

Most of these drugs are highly addictive and can lead to overdose and death when taken in high doses.

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What are Some Examples of Prescription Drugs?

Commonly misused prescription medications include, but are not limited to:

Ambien

Ambien is the brand name for zolpidem. It is used to treat people with insomnia, which is a condition that makes it difficult to fall and stay asleep.

If you've been misusing the drug for a long time, it can cause withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking it. These symptoms include:

  • Muscle cramps
  • Stomach cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Convulsions

Ketamine

Ketamine is an anesthetic drug that is commonly used in surgeries. Recently, ketamine has also been used to treat depression.

The drug can alter your:

  • Awareness
  • Thoughts
  • Surroundings
  • Feelings

If someone takes a high dose of ketamine, they may experience terrifying feelings of sensory detachment. The drug is also addictive and can lead to an overdose or death.

Trazodone

Trazodone is an antidepressant medication that is prescribed to treat major depressive disorder and other mood disorders. However, some people abuse the drug without a prescription or take higher doses than prescribed, which is extremely dangerous.

With prolonged use, Trazodone can cause:

  • Serotonin syndrome
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Antidepressant discontinuation syndrome

Gabapentin

Gabapentin is an anti-seizure or anticonvulsant medication. It is commonly used to treat chronic nerve pain, hot flashes, fibromyalgia, and alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Side effects of drug use include diarrhea and vomiting, which can be dangerous if not taken seriously. Gabapentin is also addictive, and symptoms of addiction include changes in mood and behavior, poor coordination, and muscle tremors.

Soma

Soma (carisoprodol) is a prescription muscle relaxant that relieves acute musculoskeletal pain. People abuse Soma for its anti-anxiety, relaxing, and sedating effects. However, long-term and repeated drug use can lead to drug tolerance and withdrawal symptoms after stopping use.

Accutane

Accutane (isotretinoin) is a prescription medication that treats severe nodular acne. It can cause:

  • Psychosis
  • Depression
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicidal attempts
  • Violent or aggressive behaviors

The medication is not shown to be addictive.

Provigil

Provigil (modafinil) is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant that treats sleep disorders by promoting wakefulness. These include:

  • Narcolepsy
  • Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD)
  • Sleep apnea

It is a Schedule IV drug, which means it has a low risk for addiction and dependence. However, it is still possible to become addicted to modafinil.

Wellbutrin

Wellbutrin (bupropion) is an antidepressant medication that treats major depressive disorder in adults. It is also used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

This is when episodes of depression occur during the fall and winter seasons. Although considered non-addictive, suicidal thoughts and seizures are two of the most serious potential side effects.

Narcan

Narcan is a nasal spray medication that stops opioid overdoses. While it is not shown to be addictive, Narcan can induce opioid withdrawal symptoms.

These include fever:

  • Body aches
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Restlessness
  • High blood pressure
  • Weakness

Adderall

Adderall is a prescription stimulant made of a combination of levoamphetamine and dextroamphetamine. Adderall is often prescribed to people with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) or narcolepsy.

It's proven to improve:

  • Focus
  • Attention
  • Alertness

It is commonly believed by high school and college students that Adderall will give them an educational advantage and help them get better grades. This is why Adderall and other stimulants are called “study drugs.”

However, studies actually show that the opposite is true. Students who do not misuse prescription stimulants actually have better grades than those who do.

Ritalin

Ritalin and Adderall have a lot in common. They are both CNS stimulants used to treat ADHD. These medications produce very similar results and side effects. Ritalin is misused and abused for the same reasons as Adderall.

Vicodin

Vicodin is a drug made of a combination of hydrocodone and acetaminophen. It is a pain reliever that depresses the central nervous system.

Doctors prescribe it for severe pain relief or in cases where other pain medications do not work. The hydrocodone in Vicodin makes it addictive if used for an extended time or if abused/used recreationally.

Codeine

Codeine is a prescription drug produced in both pill and cough syrup form and acts on the central nervous system (CNS) to relieve pain. The drug treats mild-to-moderate pain as well as severe cough and cold.

Codeine is the least potent of all prescription opioids. The drug is perceived as the “safest” and least addictive. It is also the most commonly prescribed opioid in the world. However, misuse and addiction are still possible.

Xanax

Xanax (alprazolam) is a sedative benzodiazepine medication. Benzodiazepines are CNS depressants that temporarily slow down your central nervous system. When taken correctly and as your doctor prescribes, Xanax is effective and safe. 

However, using Xanax long-term can result in physical and emotional dependence. Physical dependence can develop after just two or more weeks of taking the drug.

Common Side Effects of Prescription Drugs

The side effects of prescription drugs vary greatly. Stimulants, benzodiazepines, and opioids are commonly prescribed medications that can cause many side effects.

For example, prescription stimulants (like Adderall) can cause heart issues, high body temperature, tremors, aggressiveness, hallucinations, and paranoia.

Prescription benzodiazepines like Xanax and other sedative medications can cause:

  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Memory issues
  • Speech problems
  • Blurry vision
  • Dry mouth
  • Muscle weakness
  • Unsteadiness
  • Headaches
  • Constipation
  • Nausea and flu-like symptoms
  • Light-headedness and dizziness

Prescription opioids like hydrocodone and codeine can cause:

  • Euphoria
  • Dry mouth
  • A feeling of heaviness in the arms and legs
  • Warm flushing of the skin
  • Severe itching
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Drowsiness — often nodding out
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Seizures

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Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction

The most common signs and symptoms of drug abuse and addiction include:

  • Continuing to use the drug after the pain resolves
  • Showing interest in medications rather than hearing about other treatment options
  • Taking prescription medications that are prescribed to someone else
  • Complaining about vague or minor symptoms to get prescribed more drugs
  • Stealing or forging prescriptions
  • Lying or stealing money from others to get more medications
  • Making poor decisions
  • Looking or feeling "out of it"
  • Physical symptoms of drug misuse (muscle pain, flu-like symptoms, insomnia, etc.)
  • Taking higher doses of the medication without a doctor's prescription
  • Mood changes (hostility, aggression, anxiety)
  • A history of drug addiction
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms

Treatment for Prescription Drug Abuse & Addiction

Treatment for prescription drug addiction depends on the medication being misused. For example, treatment for opioid addiction may be different from that of benzodiazepines and stimulants. The medications used during detox and the duration of treatment will vary.

However, everyone with substance abuse problems should undergo detox at a professional treatment center. A medical detox can help prevent or lessen the impact of withdrawal symptoms.

Other treatment options for drug abuse and addiction include:

If you or someone you know is addicted to prescription drugs, contact a healthcare professional or addiction specialist. They can recommend a treatment plan that suits your needs.

Summary

Prescription medicine is typically used to treat pain, discomfort, and other conditions. However, some people may misuse these drugs, leading to addiction, tolerance, and dependence.

Various prescription drugs can be abused due to their euphoric side effects. However, abusing these drugs can lead to long-term health problems.

Contact a medical professional if you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorders (SUDs). They can provide treatment plans that cater to your needs

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Updated on February 6, 2024
12 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
  1. Benzos and Overdose: Be Aware of the Risks and Signs.” Stop Overdose BC, 2019.

  2. Fialip et al. “Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Seizures: Analysis of 48 Case Reports.” Clinical Neuropharmacology, 1987.

  3. Mark, O. “Benzodiazepine Use in the United States.” JAMA Psychiatry, JAMA Network, 2015.

  4. Mohler, H., and Okada, T. “Benzodiazepine Receptor: Demonstration in the Central Nervous System.” Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1977.

  5. Owen, R.T., and Tyrer, P. “Benzodiazepine Dependence.” Drugs, Springer International Publishing, 2012.

  6. Department of Psychiatry. “The Diagnosis and Management of Benzodiazepine Dependence : Current Opinion in Psychiatry.” LWW.

  7. CDC Online Newsroom - Press Release - CDC Survey Finds That 1 in 5 U.S. High School Students Have Abused Prescription Drugs.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010.

  8. Medline Plus. "Methamphetamine." US National Library of Medicine.

  9. Abelman, D. “Mitigating Risks of Students Use of Study Drugs through Understanding Motivations for Use and Applying Harm Reduction Theory: a Literature Review.” Harm Reduction Journal, BioMed Central, 2017.

  10. Hernandez, S., and Nelson, L. “Prescription Drug Abuse: Insight Into the Epidemic.” Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 2010.

  11. Methylphenidate: MedlinePlus Drug Information.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine.

  12. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Prescription Stimulants.” NIDA, 6 June 2018, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-stimulants.

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