What are prescription drugs? Prescription drugs, sometimes known as prescription medications, are pharmaceutical drugs that can only be sold to people who possess a medical prescription issued by a doctor or licensed physician. There is a distinction between prescription drugs and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. While both over-the-counter drugs and prescription drugs are designed to treat medical ailments, and both can be abused, prescription drugs are unique in that they can only be legally obtained with a medical prescription.
The fact that obtaining prescription drugs legally requires a doctor’s signature means that recreational drug users often need to be creative in order to obtain them. Prescription drugs can be acquired and misused in a number of ways, including:
- Obtaining them from a family member or friend who has a prescription
- Taking larger doses than medically recommended
- Taking doses more frequently than medically recommended
- Refilling the prescription without a doctor’s permission
- Abusing the drug using another route of administration (smoking, injecting, or crushing and snorting)
- “Doctor shopping” (If one doctor refuses to prescribe the drug, going to another doctor until it is prescribed)
- Buying prescription drugs online or on the street
There are thousands of prescription drugs on the market, and each one is sold under multiple brand names. However, not all prescription drugs are prone to misuse and abuse. There are many prescription drugs that do not offer a “high,” and many of them are non-addictive or simply subjectively unpleasant. However, certain categories of prescription drugs have a high potential for abuse. These psychoactive prescription drugs have widely varying effects and dangers, and each one is prescribed for a different purpose. Understanding the nature of these drugs and their risks is essential.
Prescription stimulants are drugs that increase activity in the central nervous system. Taking a prescription stimulant can increase a person’s energy, alertness, and focus. They can also suppress appetite, elevate blood pressure, and increase sex drive. Prescription stimulants are generally used as treatments for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a mental health condition that causes problems with impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattentiveness. However, prescription stimulants are often abused by people who do not suffer from this condition, especially college students who use prescription stimulants to improve their academic performance.
There are many street drugs that are classified as stimulants, such as cocaine, crack, and methamphetamine, and many prescription stimulants are no safer than these drugs. ADHD medication is often prescribed in pill form, though it is sometimes available in a skin patch or liquid formulation. It is common for people abusing these drugs to use alternative routes of administration, such as snorting or injection. Stimulant pills can be crushed and snorted, or they can be dissolved in liquid and injected; both methods make the effects more powerful and therefore more dangerous, especially when combined with other substances. Stimulants are generally grouped into three classifications: long-acting, intermediate-acting, and short acting.
Long-acting stimulants are often meant to be taken once a day or even less frequently, since many of them have effects that last for days. When taken recreationally, however, these powerful drugs are sometimes abused multiple times a day. Common long-acting stimulant prescription drugs include:
- Adderall XR
- Adzenys XR-ODT
- Metadate CD
- Focalin XR
- Quillivant XR
- Quillichew ER
- Ritalin LA
Intermediate-acting prescription stimulants require more regular dosage to work properly. Common intermediate-acting prescription stimulants include:
- Metadate ER
- Methylin ER
- Ritalin SR
Short-acting prescription stimulants are designed to provide immediate effects that wear off relatively quickly. The most common short-acting prescription stimulants are:
Opioids are drugs that are derived from the naturally growing opium poppy, though in recent years powerful synthetic opioids that are entirely lab-produced have become popular. Opioids are generally prescribed as analgesics, or painkillers, because their effect on the brain’s opioid receptors causes the suppression of pain signals. However, opioids also cause people to experience intense euphoria, and they can be extremely addictive.
Prescription opioids, especially synthetic opioids, are often stronger than opioid street drugs. Fentanyl, for instance, is many times more potent than heroin. In fact, the majority of heroin users started off by becoming addicted to prescription opioids. The United States and much of the world is currently facing an unprecedented opioid epidemic. In 2017 alone, 47,600 people died of opioid overdoses in the United States, with many more people being adversely affected without necessarily losing their lives.
It should be noted that prescription opioids are essential medications that are very effective for treating severe and chronic pain, helping people who are getting surgery or undergoing cancer treatment. However, tolerance and physical dependence builds so quickly that even people who are taking opioids for a legitimate purpose are at a high risk of addiction. Individuals who misuse or abuse their prescriptions can experience acute side effects, including life-threatening overdoses.
Commonly abused prescription opioids include:
- Diphenoxylate (Lomotil)
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lorcet, Lortab)
- Oxycodone (Percocet, Percodan, OxyContin)
- Meperidine (Demerol)
- Methadone (Dolphine)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- Propoxyphene (Darvon)
- Fentanyl (Duragesic)
- Codeine (Vopac, Tylenol with Codeine)
- Morphine (Avinza, Kadian, and MS Contin)
Tranquilizers, which include benzodiazepines, non-benzodiazepine sleep medications, and barbiturates, are a class of drugs that slows down brain activity. Sometimes known as sedatives, these drugs are central nervous system (CNS) depressants. Prescription opioids are also CNS depressants, but tranquilizers are distinct because they are generally prescribed for the specific purpose of producing calmness or drowsiness. Prescription tranquilizers and sedatives are common treatments for anxiety disorders and sleep disorders.
Benzodiazepines are often abused because they produce euphoric feelings, anecdotally similar to the experience of drinking alcohol. While they can be effective treatments for panic attacks, severe stress, and anxiety, they can quickly cause a person to develop physical dependence. In fact, the withdrawal effects that occur when a person tries to stop using benzodiazepines can be so severe that they can be life-threatening. Commonly abused benzodiazepines, or “benzos,” include:
- Alprazolam (Xanax)
- Diazepam (Valium)
- Estazolam (ProSom)
- Triazolam (Halcion)
Many sleep medications are related to benzodiazepines on a chemical level but are not technically benzodiazepines. Non-benzodiazepine sleep medications act on the same receptors and, while they have a lower risk of physical dependence, they can still cause a wide range of harms when abused. Common non-benzodiazepine sleep medicines include:
- Zaleplon (Sonata)
- Eszopiclone (Lunesta)
- Zolpidem (Ambien)
Barbiturates are a class of tranquilizers that in recent years has become less commonly prescribed than benzodiazepines. These prescription sedatives have a very high risk of overdose. Common barbiturates include:
- Mephobarbital (Mebaral)
- Phenobarbital (Luminal Sodium)
- Pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal)