Many people assume that, because a medication is prescribed by a doctor, it is 100% safe. The truth is, even prescriptions can be dangerous and addictive. If a medicine is misused, or used in a way other than prescribed, there may be a chance for addiction or even overdose.
While we often question common side effects like nausea or loss of appetite, we do not always think about the dangers of medications from a substance abuse and addiction angle. If you have a teen or young adult who has been prescribed a medication – say, to cope with post-surgery pain or even ADHD symptoms – these are important considerations. Young people are at the highest risk for drug abuse and addiction, and the long-term consequences involved. They are also highly likely to abuse prescription drugs.
According to national surveys, prescription drugs (taken non-medically) are the most commonly used drug category by adolescents and young adults, following marijuana, tobacco, and alcohol. In addition, the misuse of prescription drugs is highest among young adults between the ages 18 to 25, with over 14 percent of young adults reporting non-medical use of these drugs. About five percent of teenagers, ages 12 to 17, also report non-medical prescription drug abuse.
Right now, you may be thinking, how dangerous can be prescription medications be? If a doctor is prescribing these drugs, aren’t they considered safe? As a parent, it can be difficult to wrap your head around the fact that some prescription drugs can put your teen at risk for addiction. But not all medications are addictive, and not all people will become addicted to medications they take. This is an important distinction. When taken responsibly and as prescribed (a certain dosage, at a certain number of times per day), these drugs can be very effective in helping treat symptoms and disease. However, when prescription medications are misused – i.e. taken more frequently, in greater dosages, or longer than prescribed – that’s what introduces the risk. Teens and young adults are also likely to misuse other people’s medications, including their friends’ Adderall prescription, or those painkillers in your medicine cabinet, because they are “free,” easy-to-access, and seemingly low risk.
Now you may be asking: Which prescription drugs are the most addictive medications? Which pose the greatest risk for negative outcomes, like overdose? Which should I, as a parent, be most concerned about? Let’s dive in a bit more.
There is an increasing rise in the misuse of opioids (i.e. prescription painkillers), stimulants, and depressants:
- Opioids, like brand names Vicodin or Oxycontin, are prescribed to treat pain, such as after an injury. They produce a numbing effect, reduce anxiety, and in large doses, cause a surge of euphoria in users.
- Stimulants, such as Adderall and other amphetamines, are typically prescribed to treat conditions that affect a user’s ability to focus, like narcolepsy or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. These drugs produce energizing and euphoric effects, and increase wakefulness or alertness in users. For this reason, some teens and young adults will use stimulant drugs to increase alertness in school.
- Depressants, such as Xanax and Valium, are known for their sedative effects. They are often prescribed to treat anxiety and insomnia, but are abused because of their calming and euphoric effects.
Taken as prescribed, these are effective medications. Taken in any other means, however, especially in combination with other substances like alcohol, highly raises the dangers of these drugs. As detailed in our list of the top 3 most dangerous medications, the perils of these prescription drug categories are vast:
- Opioids pose a very high risk for negative side effects like overdose. When too much of these drugs are taken, it can lead to respiratory depression in users. Opioids are also highly addictive. They are classified as Schedule II drugs by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). This means opioids have a very high potential for abuse and “severe dependence” after a period of time. It is thought that an opioid dependence can develop in as few as two days; a physical addiction can develop within four weeks.
- Stimulants come with dangerous side effects like cardiovascular failure, heart attack, seizures, and stroke, if too much of the drug is taken. Repeated use for a long period of time can also lead to psychosis and/or addiction. Stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are also classified as Schedule II drugs by the DEA.
- Depressants, while they have a lower risk of dependence, do have associated dangers like decreased organ function, impaired motor function, psychosis/paranoia, and long periods of sedation. This is especially true when used in conjunction with other drugs or alcohol. If your teen drinks and uses a drug like Xanax, he or she runs the risk of overdose, which might involve a dangerously slow heartbeat, cessation of breathing, and possibly death.
The most addictive prescription drugs out there today include oxycodone, Demerol, and amphetamines. Below is a list of addictive medications, categorized as Schedule II drugs, in which the DEA reports are dangerous and have the potential for severe psychological or physical dependence.
- Combination products with less than 15 milligrams of hydrocodone per dosage unit (Vicodin)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- Meperidine (Demerol)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin)
Understanding which prescription drugs pose the most dangers, will be essential for your loved one’s health. As a parent, it is important to monitor your medicine cabinet, keep a close eye on your child’s prescription drug use, and to encourage your teen to be open about his or her experiences with substance abuse. If you are concerned your loved one is abusing or addicted to a prescription medication, you can always reach out to Turnbridge for assistance.
If your loved one is already in recovery for addiction, and potentially abusing a prescription drug, you may also give us a call for support. Or, check out our recent article, “Are Prescription Drugs Safe In Recovery?,” for even more information on this topic. Turnbridge is an adolescent and young adult treatment center in Connecticut, with significant experience in helping youth battle prescription drug addictions. To learn about our programs, visit us online here.