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Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications

Editor Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Created On
Updated On

There are some medication on the market, both prescription and over the counter (OTC), that have psychoactive properties, having an high abuse potential. These medications are taken for reasons other than why they are originally prescribed, taken in ways they were not intended for, or taken by someone other than the person they were prescribed for.Prescription and Over the Counter medications are the third most commonly abused substances in America of those 14 years and older.

The classes of prescription drugs most commonly abused are:

  • opioid pain relievers
    • Vicodin
    • Oxycontin
  • Stimulants for treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
    • Adderall
    • Concerta
    • Ritalin
  • central nervous system (CNS) depressants for relieving anxiety
    • Valium
    • Xanax

The most commonly abused OTC drugs are;

  • cough and cold remedies containing dextromethorphan.

It is a common misconception that prescription and OTC drugs are safer that illicit drugs. This is not true unless the drug is take by the person it is prescribed, exactly how it is directed to be taken and for its intended purpose. Individuals who abuse prescription and OTC medications are at great risk of developing an addiction, as well as numerous other adverse health effects and over dose.

How Are Prescription Drugs Abused?

Prescription and OTC drugs can be abused in various ways. Many individuals will take a medication that has been prescribed to someone else. They are unaware of the dangers of doing so, risking adverse health effects and addiction. Many teenagers and young adults are given prescription or OTC medication by a friend or retaliative. Other individuals may abuse these medication by taking higher quantities than they have been prescribed. Some abusers will crush tablets and snort or inject the powder for a high. Abusing prescription drugs is taking a drug for another purpose than it was prescribed. Many will abuse drugs in search of its pleasurable effects. Some medications, ADHD drugs, are even abused by students looking to improve their academic performance, this boosts their alertness and allows them to stay focused on their studies.


How Do Prescription and OTC Drugs Affect the Brain?

When prescription and OTC drugs are taken as intended and safely they work to treat specific mental or physical symptoms. When these medications are taken for other purposes the affects on the brain can be similar to that of illicit drugs. When abused prescription and OTC medications cause a pleasurable increase in the amount of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway. Many abusers will repetitively use the drug to experience that feeling again, which can lead to addiction.

What Are the Other Health Effects of Prescription and OTC Drugs?

Stimulant medications have strong effects on the cardiovascular system. When these stimulant medications are taken in high doses that can be a dangerous raise in body temperature, causing an irregular heartbeat or even cause heart failure or seizures. Some stimulant abusers who repetitively use the drug in high doses can develop hostility or feelings of paranoia.

Opioids medications may produce drowsiness, cause constipation,  and in high doses it can cause depress breathing. When the drug is snorted or injected, or combined with other drugs or alcohol, opioids can have dangerous latter effects. Prescription overdoses have more people die from overdoses than from all other drugs combined, including heroin and cocaine.

CNS depressants slow down brain activity, this cause sleepiness and loss of coordination. Prolonged use of CNS depressants can lead to physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms when abruptly stopping its use.

All of these abused prescription medications have a high risk of abuse and addiction. Those who do develop an addiction will become physically and psychologically dependent on the medication, without its use they will experience withdrawal symptoms and strong cravings. This often is a cause for relapse. To prevent this many prescription or OTC addicts will require inpatient treatment services.

Statistics and Trends

Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Various Drugs for 8th-Graders, 10th-Graders, and 12th-Graders; 2013 (in percent)*
DrugTime Period8th-Graders10th-Graders12th-Graders
Any Prescription DrugPast Year15.00
AmphetaminePast Year2.605.908.70
AdderallPast Year1.804.407.40
RitalinPast Year1.101.802.30
Narcotics other than HeroinPast Year7.10
VicodinPast Year1.404.60[5.30]
OxyContinPast Year2.003.403.60
TranquilizersPast Year1.803.704.60

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