Prescription Drugs

Prescription drugs can work wonders when used as prescribed, though there are some risks to consider. Knowing how these drugs work can help you keep patterns of prescription drug abuse from taking over your life.

It can be easy to underestimate the risks associated with drug use when the drug is prescribed by a doctor. Prescription drugs offer a range of benefits, but many of them carry risks for abuse and addiction. Prescription medications interact with the body’s systems just like any other type of drug, whether they be over-the-counter or illegal drugs. What makes prescription drugs so risky is their ability to interact with the brain and change how the brain works.  Understanding what these medications do and knowing what signs of prescription drug abuse to watch for can go a long way towards helping you avoid the risks associated with these drugs.

What Are Prescription Drugs and How Do They Work?

As of October 2019, more than 20,000 prescription medications have been approved for treatment use. While prescription drugs require a doctor’s prescription to obtain, many more over-the-counter medications add to the total number of drugs in use today.  Whether prescription-based or over-the-counter, all drugs are chemicals that interact with the body to produce the desired effect.

More specifically, drugs interact with the body’s protein materials to produce an intended effect. These protein materials take many different forms and perform many different functions. Ultimately, proteins control the body’s systems and enable them to run.

Each cell surface in the body houses cell receptors that are made of protein. The cell receptor’s job is to bind to other proteins and chemicals outside the cell. When this happens, the activities inside the cell change depending on the type of protein or chemical that binds to its surface. Prescription drugs work by targeting certain types of cells, binding to the cell receptors, and changing how the cell operates.

Prescription Drug Abuse and Addiction Risks

Prescription medications (and over-the-counter drugs) are designed to interact with certain types of cell receptors and produce certain changes inside the affected cells. However, it’s not uncommon for a drug to interact with other types of cells as well. And sometimes, a drug produces unintended effects or side effects.

Prescription drug abuse and addiction are side effects of taking certain types of drugs, including:

  • Opioids
  • Stimulants
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Non-benzodiazepine sedatives

These types of drugs interact with the brain’s cells, which is where prescription drug abuse and addiction develop. They target certain key cell types and change the way the cells work to produce the drug’s desired effects. The side effect that makes these types of drugs so addictive is the feeling of euphoria or “high” that they produce.

For some people, the “high” can become a driving force, inciting continuous and excessive drug use. In the process, normal brain cell activities become warped to the point where these cells can no longer function normally without the drug’s effects. Over time, these changes create a snowball effect that lays the groundwork for addiction to take root.

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Types of Prescription Drugs and How They Work

Opioids

Opioids act as painkillers, blocking pain signals by slowing the body’s central nervous system (CNS) activities. The brain also has its own opioid system made up of chemicals that have the same effects on the CNS. The cells in the brain’s opioid system have opioid receptors, which are the protein parts of the cells that bind with opioid drugs. These stark similarities between opioid drugs and the brain’s opioid system account for why opioid prescription drugs are so addictive.

Some of the commonly prescribed opioid drugs include:

  • Vicodin
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone
  • Percocet
  • Fentanyl

Stimulants

Stimulant prescription medications work by speeding up central nervous system activities. Doctors prescribe stimulants to treat various conditions, including narcolepsy, ADHD, binge eating disorders, and even depression. Like opioids, stimulants produce a “high” effect, which can set the cycle of prescription drug abuse in motion.

Commonly prescribed stimulants include:

  • Desoxyn
  • Adderall
  • Dexedrine
  • Vyvanse
  • Benzedrine

Benzodiazepines

Like opioids, benzodiazepines, or benzos work by slowing central nervous system activities, though benzos interact with different types of brain cells than opioids. Benzodiazepines are prescribed to treat anxiety, panic attacks, seizures, depression, and sleep disorders. While not nearly as addictive as opioids, signs of prescription drug abuse can develop when taking benzodiazepines when used on a long-term basis.

Benzodiazepines typically prescribed by doctors:

  • Ativan
  • Klonopin
  • Valium
  • Xanax
  • Restoril

Non-Benzodiazepine Sedatives

Non-benzodiazepine sedatives, also known as Z-drugs, were developed in an effort to improve upon the abuse potential of benzodiazepines. Z-drugs are mainly prescribed to treat insomnia. Like benzos, Z-drugs slow the body’s central nervous system activities but interact with different types of cells. Compared to benzos, the risk of abuse is lower but signs of prescription drug abuse can still develop taking Z-drugs on a long-term basis.

Non-benzodiazepine sedatives include:

  • Lunesta
  • Ambien
  • Sonata
  • Edluar

Risk Factors for Prescription Drug Abuse and Addiction

Your risk of abusing prescription drugs depends on a host of factors, including:

  • Mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety-based disorders
  • Your physiological makeup
  • Having a history of drug abuse or addiction
  • Having a family history of drug abuse or addiction
  • High-stress lifestyle
  • Having problems at home, work, or school

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Prescription drugs should only be used as prescribed. When you exceed prescription guidelines the risk of abuse and addiction increases. Patterns of drug abuse develop as your brain becomes dependent on the drug to function normally.

Two processes contribute to these developments: increasing tolerance levels and withdrawal effects. Over time, your brain’s cells will develop a tolerance to the drug’s effects. This means you have to take larger doses or take additional doses of the drug to experience the desired effects. Your brain also needs sufficient amounts of the drug to function normally or else withdrawal symptoms will develop. This means a person is more likely to exceed prescription guidelines to avoid experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

Signs of prescription drug withdrawal can vary depending on the type of drug used. Here are a few prescription drug withdrawal symptoms that tend to develop regardless of what type of drug you’re using:

  • Problems sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Muddled thinking
  • Problems focusing and concentrating
  • Agitation
  • A decline in work or school performance

When left untreated, signs of prescription drug abuse will soon turn into an addiction problem. When this happens, the effects of the drug on brain functioning has reached a point where the cognitive areas of the brain that regulate thinking and emotions become dependent on the drug’s effects. This means getting and using the drug becomes a compulsion that takes priority over everything else in your life.

These conditions will only get worse over time. Seeking prescription drug rehab treatment at the early stages of drug abuse will make for an easier recovery than with a full-blown addiction. For these reasons, the earlier you seek treatment help the better your chances of overcoming a prescription drug abuse problem.

Resources:

  •  fda.gov – U. S. Food & Drug Administration, Fact Sheet: FDA at a Glance
  • ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – WIREs Systems Biology and Medicine, Role of Systems Pharmacology in Understanding Drug Adverse Events
  • drugabuse.gov – National Institute on Drug Abuse, Understanding Drug Use, and Addiction DrugFacts
  • medlineplus.gov – U. S. National Library of Medicine, Drug Use and Addiction

Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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