The abuse of prescribed medications is a growing problem. The Foundation for a Drug-Free World, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating adults and young people about drug abuse, says that more than 25 million Americans abuse prescription drugs. Only five percent of the world’s population lives in the United States, but the country consumes around 80 percent of the world’s opioids. 

The Crisis 

Sometimes drugs are necessary, but they can quickly lead to addiction when they are abused. Unfortunately, many people think the medications are safe because they are prescribed by doctors, and others rationalize their use because they are legal. Because the drugs are relatively easy to get, their abuse is becoming a major health and social problem. More people die from prescription drug overdoses than methamphetamines, amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin combined. 

We all need to understand the warning signs and risk factors so that we can recognize them in ourselves or in friends or family. 

Risk Factors 

For people who live with chronic pain, the threshold between therapeutic use of painkillers and misuse can be hard to define. For others, a medication that was legitimately prescribed for an illness may also serve an emotional need, gradually leading to overuse. There are also specific factors that increase a person’s risk. Among these are the following: 

• Living in poverty 
• Having a family history of substance abuse 
• Having a mental condition like anxiety or depression 
• Having a history of trauma 

Anyone who has experimented with drugs in the past is also more likely to have a problem in the future. If you are at risk and you need medication, ask your doctor for safer options when you get a prescription. 

Signs of Prescription Drug Abuse 

A person who has a drug problem usually tried to hide it, but most people display changes in behavior or physical symptoms. Physical symptoms vary, depending on the type of drug that is being abused. 

• Behavioral Signs of Substance Abuse 
o Change in work habits or daily performance 
o Unexplained mood swings 
o Lying or avoiding 
o Increase or loss of appetite 
o Lack of interest in things they enjoyed 
o Disheveled appearance 
o Change in friends or activities 
o Aggressive or reckless behavior 

Opioids, such as morphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone, are often used for severe pain in people who have cancer or undergo surgery. They produce a state of euphoria and are the leading cause of prescription drug abuse. 

• Physical Signs of Opioid Abuse 
o Small pupils 
o Droopy eyes 
o Sleepiness 
o Shallow breathing 
o Slurred speech 
o Skin dryness or infections 
o Nausea 
o Confusion 
o Low blood pressure 
o Dry mouth 
o Needle marks, if using needles 

Depressants are used to treat conditions like insomnia and anxiety. They include sleeping pills, tranquilizers, barbiturates, and sedatives, all of which can create intense feelings of bliss, contentment, or excitement. 

• Physical Signs of Depressant Abuse 
o Slow reflexes 
o Slurred speech 
o Low blood pressure 
o Forgetfulness 
o Shallow breathing 
o Lack of focus 
o Clumsiness 

Stimulants, such as Concerta, Ritalin, and Adderall, are usually prescribed to treat attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). When properly used, they can improve alertness, attention span, energy levels, and mood. 

• Physical Signs of Stimulant Abuse 
o Weight loss 
o Dilated pupils 
o Hyperactivity 
o Nervousness or anxiety 
o High blood pressure 
o Palpitations 
o Sweating or trembling 
o Aggressive behavior 

What to Do 

Researchers now know that substance abuse is caused by a brain disorder that is highly treatable. Treatment, however, depends on the type of drug that is being misused and may require a combination of different modalities to be successful. These can include detox, medications, cognitive behavioral training, and counseling. 

For some people, more than one round of treatment may necessary. Group therapy that includes family is often helpful, and so is learning new ways of thinking be and responding to stress. If you think you or someone you know has a problem with substance abuse, get help as soon as possible. The earlier the illness is caught, the more easily it is to treat.

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