While we often hear about “the opioid epidemic” today — and that truly is a huge and serious problem — prescription drug abuse is not a new phenomenon. In fact, for as long as humans have recognized various natural substances can produce a pleasant effect on the mind or body, some have abused those substances.
Maybe this problem affects you personally. Or, maybe it’s a family member or close friend who’s struggling with it. Even if you’re fortunate enough not to be touched personally by prescription drug abuse, the larger impact of the problem does affect you. All of us have to face the higher healthcare costs that are, in part, due to this issue. And stricter policies around prescribing drugs can often keep them from those who legitimately need them, including you and your family.
So, what can you do about prescription drug abuse? Knowledge is the key. Once you understand the basics of preventing, recognizing, and getting treatment for this problem, you can start making a difference for yourself and others.
What is prescription drug abuse?
The first thing you need to recognize is what prescription drug abuse actually is. It doesn’t mean being completely strung out on narcotic pain killers, huddled in some dirty alley like you may picture the stereotypical heroin or meth addict. Far from it.
Most abusers of prescription drugs are fully functional members of society: they have jobs or go to school, and have busy social lives just like you. They probably handle all those responsibilities adequately. In fact, like a functioning alcoholic, few if any of the person’s associates even realize the problem exists. It’s only a small percentage of abusers who progress to the point of true drug addiction and spiral out of control as a result of their abuse.
Teens and young adults are especially drawn to the intentional abuse of prescription drugs, although anyone may be affected, including seniors. But, it’s not always something someone gets into intentionally.
“Prescription drug abuse is the use of a prescription medication in a way not intended by the prescribing doctor.” - The Mayo Clinic
That would include:
- Taking a higher dose than prescribed by your doctor
- Obtaining more of a drug under false pretenses (feigning illness or injury)
- Using drugs prescribed to others
- Using prescription drugs expressly to “get high”
- Altering or combining prescription drugs to produce a desired effect
As you can see, these aren’t all as clearly wrong as filling and smoking a crack pipe. In some cases, abusers of prescription drugs don’t even realize they’re doing it. Or, they may fall into the practice accidentally in the midst of receiving or recovering from legitimate and necessary medical treatment.
Because it can be so insidious, prevention is always the best policy.
Preventing prescription drug abuse
Preventing prescription drug abuse requires a multi-pronged approach:
Working with your doctor
Doctors are well aware of the dangers of prescription drug abuse. At the same time, they need to balance that concern with the legitimate medical needs of their patients. To take full advantage of their expertise — and prevent your own unintentional prescription drug abuse — the first step is to thoroughly discuss the proper use of any medication your doctor prescribes. This is especially important if the drug falls into one of the four most commonly abused types:
- Pain killers (such as Oxycontin and Percocet)
- Anti-anxiety medications (such as Xanax and Valium)
- Sedatives/hypnotics (such as Ambien)
- Stimulants (such as Ritalin or Adderall)
Follow your doctor’s instructions exactly as to dosage and duration of treatment. If the prescription isn’t having the desired effect, don’t take more! If you’re still in pain after your supply is gone, don’t get more! Contact your doctor for directions and do what they say.
If you’re a parent whose son or daughter is prescribed medication, follow these rules on their behalf and make sure they’re doing the same.
Storing and disposing of drugs properly
If you have children or teens in the house, it’s best to keep prescription drugs in a locked medicine cabinet or other secure location. Within reason, try to keep track of how many pills should be in the container so you can tell if pills are being taken without your knowledge or permission.
Once drugs are no longer needed or have reached their expiration date, they should be responsibly disposed of to eliminate the possibility of future abuse. Speak to your pharmacist about proper disposal. Many pharmacies will dispose of your unused prescription drugs for you, at no cost.
Never share your medication or take someone else’s
It’s incredibly dangerous to take medication that hasn’t been prescribed for you personally. When writing a prescription, a doctor takes a number of factors into account, most of which are highly personalized. Among others, these will include:
- Body weight
- Other prescriptions and supplements being taken
- Expected duration of treatment
To take someone else’s prescribed medication simply because you also struggle with back pain or insomnia means ignoring all of the important, personalized details their doctor took into consideration when writing the prescription. It’s essentially gambling with your health, or even your life.
Don’t do it. And, don’t let other people do it.
Unfortunately, prevention isn’t always successful. So, what if the problem has already developed? The next thing you can do is learn to recognize the signs of prescription drug abuse in yourself and others.
Recognizing the signs of prescription drug abuse
When someone is abusing prescription drugs, the effects may be subtle, at least at first. However, those closest to them often get a nagging feeling that something is wrong, even though they can’t put their finger on it. If you know exactly what to look for, you may be able to identify the problem and help resolve it early on.
The following table is courtesy of The Mayo Clinic. It lists the most common physical symptoms someone may experience if they’re taking too much of the highlighted drug types:
Anti-anxiety medications and sedatives
Feeling high (euphoria)
Slowed breathing rate
Increased dose required for pain relief
Worsening or increased sensitivity to pain with higher doses (hyperalgesia)
Problems with memory
High blood pressure
High body temperature
It’s important to note that none of these physical reactions are guaranteed as each individual is different. And, the longer someone abuses a particular drug, the less likely it is to have an adverse physical reaction. That’s both because their body becomes more acclimated to the drug, and because they learn over time exactly what dose or combination they need to achieve the positive effect while avoiding negative side effects.
Beyond these mostly unintended physical effects, you’ll likely notice the individual experiences marked swings in energy level, alertness, stamina, or sleep patterns. These are likely the intended effects, which the individual considers positive.
Unlike the negative symptoms listed above, these behavioral changes will probably show up more so once the abuse has been occurring for some time. At this point, the individual may be struggling with withdrawal symptoms without the medication, so they may go to great lengths to obtain more of what is now becoming a physical addiction. They may exhibit:
- Taking higher doses than previously
- Excessive mood swings or hostility
- Significant increase or decrease in sleep
- Poor decision making
- Requesting early refills or continually "losing" prescriptions, so more prescriptions must be written
- Seeking prescriptions from more than one doctor
- Stealing, forging, or selling prescriptions
While these behaviors may not yet be drastically affecting the individual’s daily life and responsibilities, it won’t be long before that occurs. The earlier they get into treatment for prescription drug abuse, the better.
Getting treatment for prescription drug abuse
The most important thing to know about treatment for prescription drug abuse is how widespread and readily available it is. Here are some resources to explore when seeking help:
- The National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
- Treatment center administrators like American Addiction Centers
- Your local hospital may have addiction treatment onsite
- Your doctor may be able to treat you, or direct you to an addiction specialist
- Your church or faith group may have access to an appropriate support group or program
- Your school counselor or school nurse can guide you to appropriate care
- An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) offered by your employer may cover some of the cost of treatment
Treatment necessarily varies based on the drug being taken and a number of other factors. But, by acknowledging the problem exists and reaching out for help, you or your loved one will be well on the way to recovery.