Drugs of Abuse: Prescription Drugs/Painkillers/Opioids

Get the facts about opioids, painkillers and prescription drugs.

Although most people take prescription medications responsibly, there has been an increase in the nonmedical use of or, as NIDA refers to it in this report, abuse1 of prescription drugs in the United States.

What are some of the commonly abused prescription drugs?

Although many prescription drugs can be abused, there are several classifications of medications that are commonly abused.

The three classes of prescription drugs that are most commonly abused are:

  • Opioids, which are most often prescribed to treat pain;
  • Central nervous system (CNS) depressants, which are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders; and
  • Stimulants, which are prescribed to treat the sleep disorder narcolepsy and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Opioids

What are opioids?

Opioids are commonly prescribed because of their effective analgesic, or pain-relieving, properties. Medications that fall within this class—referred to as prescription narcotics—include morphine (e.g., Kadian, Avinza), codeine, oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet), and related drugs. Morphine, for example, is often used before and after surgical procedures to alleviate severe pain. Codeine, on the other hand, is often prescribed for mild pain. In addition to their pain-relieving properties, some of these drugs, such as codeine and diphenoxylate (Lomotil), can be used to relieve coughs and diarrhea.

How do opioids affect the brain and body?

Opioids act on the brain and body by attaching to specific proteins called opioid receptors, which are found in the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract. When these drugs attach to certain opioid receptors, they can block the perception of pain. Opioids can produce drowsiness, nausea, constipation, and, depending upon the amount of drug taken, depress respiration. Opioid drugs also can induce euphoria by affecting the brain regions that mediate what we perceive as pleasure. This feeling is often intensified for those who abuse opioids when administered by routes other than those recommended. For example, OxyContin often is snorted or injected to enhance its euphoric effects, while at the same time increasing the risk for serious medical consequences, such as opioid overdose.2

What are the possible consequences of opioid use and abuse?

Taken as directed, opioids can be used to manage pain effectively. Many studies have shown that the properly managed, short-term medical use of opioid analgesic drugs is safe and rarely causes addiction. Addiction is defined as the compulsive and uncontrollable use of drugs despite adverse consequences or dependence, which occurs when the body adapts to the presence of a drug, and often results in withdrawal symptoms when that drug is reduced or stopped. Withdrawal symptoms include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps ("cold turkey"), and involuntary leg movements. Long-term use of opioids can lead to physical dependence and addiction. Taking a large single dose of an opioid could cause severe respiratory depression that can lead to death.

Is it safe to use opioid drugs with other medications?

Only under a physician's supervision can opioids be used safely with other drugs. Typically, they should not be used with other substances that depress the CNS, such as alcohol, antihistamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, or general anesthetics, because these combinations increase the risk of life-threatening respiratory depression.

CNS depressants

What are CNS depressants?

CNS depressants, sometimes referred to as sedatives and tranquilizers, are substances that can slow normal brain function. Because of this property, some CNS depressants are useful in the treatment of anxiety and sleep disorders. Among the medications that are commonly prescribed for these purposes are the following:

  • Barbiturates, such as mephobarbital (Mebaral) and pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal), are used to treat anxiety, tension, and sleep disorders.
  • Benzodiazepines, such as diazepam (Valium), chlordiazepoxide HCl (Librium), and alprazolam (Xanax), are prescribed to treat anxiety, acute stress reactions, and panic attacks. The more sedating benzodiazepines, such as triazolam (Halcion) and estazolam (ProSom) are prescribed for short-term treatment of sleep disorders. Usually, benzodiazepines are not prescribed for long-term use.

How do CNS depressants affect the brain and body?

There are numerous CNS depressants; most act on the brain by affecting the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that facilitate communication between brain cells. GABA works by decreasing brain activity. Although the different classes of CNS depressants work in unique ways, it is through their ability to increase GABA activity that they produce a drowsy or calming effect that is beneficial to those suffering from anxiety or sleep disorders.

What are the possible consequences of CNS depressant use and abuse?

Despite their many beneficial effects, barbiturates and benzodiazepines have the potential for abuse and should be used only as prescribed. During the first few days of taking a prescribed CNS depressant, a person usually feels sleepy and uncoordinated, but as the body becomes accustomed to the effects of the drug, these feelings begin to disappear. If one uses these drugs long term, the body will develop tolerance for the drugs, and larger doses will be needed to achieve the same initial effects. Continued use can lead to physical dependence and—when use is reduced or stopped—withdrawal. Because all CNS depressants work by slowing the brain's activity, when an individual stops taking them, the brain's activity can rebound and race out of control, potentially leading to seizures and other harmful consequences. Although withdrawal from benzodiazepines can be problematic, it is rarely life threatening, whereas withdrawal from prolonged use of other CNS depressants can have life-threatening complications. Therefore, someone who is thinking about discontinuing CNS depressant therapy or who is suffering withdrawal from a CNS depressant should speak with a physician or seek medical treatment.

Is it safe to use CNS depressants with other medications?

CNS depressants should be used in combination with other medications only under a physician's close supervision. Typically, they should not be combined with any other medication or substance that causes CNS depression, including prescription pain medicines, some over-the-counter (OTC) cold and allergy medications, and alcohol. Using CNS depressants with these other substances—particularly alcohol—can slow both the heart and respiration and may lead to death.

Stimulants

What are stimulants?

As the name suggests, stimulants increase alertness, attention and energy, as well as elevate blood pressure and increase heart rate and respiration. Historically, stimulants were used to treat asthma and other respiratory problems, obesity, neurological disorders, and a variety of other ailments. But as their potential for abuse and addiction became apparent, the medical use of stimulants began to wane. Now, stimulants are prescribed for the treatment of only a few health conditions, including narcolepsy, ADHD, and depression that has not responded to other treatments.

How do stimulants affect the brain and body?

Stimulants, such as dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine and Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta), have chemical structures similar to a family of key brain neurotransmitters called monoamines, which include norepinephrine and dopamine. Stimulants enhance the effects of these chemicals in the brain. Stimulants also increase blood pressure and heart rate, constrict blood vessels, increase blood glucose, and open up the pathways of the respiratory system. The increase in dopamine is associated with a sense of euphoria that can accompany the use of these drugs.

What are the possible consequences of stimulant use and abuse?

As with other drugs of abuse, it is possible for individuals to become dependent upon or addicted to many stimulants. Withdrawal symptoms associated with discontinuing stimulant use include fatigue, depression, and disturbance of sleep patterns. Repeated use of some stimulants over a short period can lead to feelings of hostility or paranoia. Further, taking high doses of a stimulant may result in dangerously high body temperature and an irregular heartbeat. There is also the potential for cardiovascular failure or lethal seizures.

Is it safe to use stimulants with other medications?

Stimulants should be used in combination with other medications only under a physician's supervision. Patients also should be aware of the dangers associated with mixing stimulants and OTC cold medicines that contain decongestants; combining these substances may cause blood pressure to become dangerously high or lead to irregular heart rhythms.

Preventing and recognizing prescription drug abuse

The risks for addiction to prescription drugs increase when the drugs are used in ways other than for those prescribed. Healthcare providers, primary care physicians, and pharmacists, as well as patients themselves, can all play a role in identifying and preventing prescription drug abuse.

Physicians

Because about 70 percent of Americans (approximately 191 million people) visit their primary care physician at least once every 2 years, these doctors are in a unique position—not only to prescribe medications, but also to identify prescription drug abuse when it exists, help the patient recognize the problem, set recovery goals, and seek appropriate treatment.

Screening for prescription drug abuse can be incorporated into routine medical visits by asking about substance abuse history, current prescription and OTC use, and reasons for use. Doctors should take note of rapid increases in the amount of medication needed, or frequent, unscheduled refill requests. Doctors also should be alert to the fact that those addicted to prescription drugs may engage in "doctor shopping"—moving from provider to provider in an effort to obtain multiple prescriptions for the drug(s) they abuse.

Preventing or stopping prescription drug abuse is an important part of patient care. However, healthcare providers should not avoid prescribing or administering stimulants, CNS depressants, or opioid pain relievers, if needed.

Pharmacists

By providing clear information on how to take a medication appropriately and describing possible side effects or drug interactions, pharmacists also can play a key role in preventing prescription drug abuse. Moreover, by monitoring prescriptions for falsification or alterations and being aware of potential "doctor shopping," pharmacists can be the first line of defense in recognizing prescription drug abuse. Some pharmacies have developed hotlines to alert other pharmacies in the region when a fraudulent prescription is detected.

Patients

There are also steps a patient can take to ensure that they use prescription medications appropriately. Patients should always follow the prescribed directions, be aware of potential interactions with other drugs, never stop or change a dosing regimen without first discussing it with their healthcare provider, and never use another person's prescription. Patients should inform their healthcare professionals about all the prescription and OTC medicines and dietary and herbal supplements they are taking, in addition to a full description of their presenting complaint, before they obtain any other medications.

Read More
Signs of addiction

7 Ways to Tell If Your Loved One Has an Addiction

Identifying an addiction in a loved one & talking about it with them. Read More >

Read More
Ask your treatment provider important questions before signing an authorization for treatment

12 Questions to Ask Every Treatment Provider

A checklist for each alcohol and drug treatment program. Read More >

Read More
Alcohol Rehab Treatment

Alcohol Rehab

Alcohol rehab treatment for patients and their families Read More >