Prescription Drugs Overview

What Are Prescription Drugs?

Prescription drugs include any kind of medication prescribed by a doctor to treat a variety of illnesses and diseases. When used as directed, prescription drugs can alleviate symptoms from cancer, psychological disorders, chronic pain, and many other illnesses. However, prescription drugs also have a great potential for abuse and addiction.

Prescription drug abuse can begin when one uses a drug in a greater dose or frequency than indicated by a doctor. Prescription drug abuse can also occur in conjunction with abuse of other substances. Some people illegally obtain prescription medication to use recreationally. Though it may not appear as dangerous since they are legally available, taking prescription drugs improperly carries many of the same risks as using illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine.

Prescription Drugs Categories


Prescription opioids like Vicodin and OxyContin are typically used to treat severe pain. Opioids work by attaching themselves to certain receptor cells in the nervous system. This essentially blocks the sensation of pain by preventing the message from being relayed from the body to the brain. In addition, they intensify feelings of pleasure and euphoria by working on the reward pathway in the brain.

Because this boost of rewarding chemicals can be desirable for those suffering from physical pain or mental illness, the potential for abuse and addiction to opioids is high. Those who misuse or overuse prescribed opioids have a greater risk of becoming addicted.

Central Nervous System (CNS) Stimulants

Certain prescription drugs are meant to stimulate the central nervous system (CNS) by increasing the speed and volume of activity in the brain. In people with certain disorders like attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), CNS stimulants can help increase attention and focus. When taken without a prescription, CNS stimulants produce feelings of euphoria and increased energy. Unintended negative side effects include high blood pressure and insomnia.

Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants

Drugs that decrease or slow the activity of the CNS are called depressants. These drugs generally work by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain that are involved in communication. When those neurotransmitters are incapacitated, communication between neurons slows. Depressants may be useful to people suffering from anxiety and panic disorders, whose nervous systems are generally overactive. Depressants may be abused for the feelings of sedation and mild euphoria they produce.

What Prescription Drugs Do People Abuse?

Prescription drugs are categorized and regulated along with other substances of concern by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). These drugs are classed according to their potential for abuse and addiction into five schedules.

Schedule I

Schedule I drugs are those that have no medical use and are considered to have the highest potential for abuse and addiction. These drugs include heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and marijuana which has not been reclassified even though some states have legalized its medical and recreational use.

Schedule II

Schedule II drugs include many popular prescription drugs like Adderall and oxycodone. These drugs do have approved medical uses but are tightly regulated because their potential for addiction is so high.

Schedule III

Schedule III drugs have a moderate risk of abuse and addiction but still require a medical prescription. Some examples of schedule III drugs include testosterone, anabolic steroids, and ketamine.

Schedule IV

Schedule IV drugs are those that have a low potential for abuse but still some risk of addiction. These include prescription medications like Xanax and Valium.

Schedule V

Though Schedule V drugs also require a prescription, like some cough syrups with codeine, the potential for abuse and addiction of these substances is considered low.

Specific Drugs Of Concern


Vicodin is a powerful prescription painkiller that includes acetaminophen and hydrocodone. Some users crush and snort the pills for a more powerful and fast-acting high. Taking Vicodin at high doses can be harmful due to its effect on important organs like the liver, which has to process the substance.


OxyContin is also prescribed as a powerful painkiller though it doesn’t have an analgesic like acetaminophen. OxyContin is typically used in extended-release form to alleviate pain over a long period of time. It is commonly abused due to the sensations of pleasure and sedation it produces.


Fentanyl is the active ingredient in several prescription medications such as Fentora and Duragesic. It’s one of the most powerful prescription narcotics and is prescribed in cases where pain is not improved by other drugs such as OxyContin. Fentanyl is also produced illicitly in private laboratories to sell for recreational drug use.


Morphine is a synthetic narcotic that is the main ingredient in painkillers such as Avinza and Astramorph. Compared to other prescription drugs, its effects typically don’t last as long. As a result, people abusing morphine may take higher and higher doses, increasing the risk of overdose.


Adderall is used to treat ADHD, acting primarily as a CNS stimulant. It is commonly abused by young adults who use it to help with focus and energy. Because of its popularity on college campuses, some users illegally sell their Adderall prescriptions.


Ritalin is also used to treat ADHD but carries a higher risk of abuse due to its amphetamine content. In addition to improving focus, Ritalin may elicit feelings of euphoria and overall well-being. It is also commonly abused by college students who take it to help them stay up long hours to study.


Valium is one of several CNS depressants used to treat anxiety. Its active ingredient is diazepam, which can create powerful effects in a short time. Valium has several interactions with other substances such as alcohol and painkillers, which may make it more dangerous and unpredictable.


Xanax is a benzodiazepine used to treat panic and associated anxiety disorders. It’s more powerful than Valium, causing more severe interactions with other drugs. Xanax is known to be habit-forming, causing addiction and overdose, including death.


Ativan is another benzodiazepine typically used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. Due to its sedative effects, it can help reduce CNS activity and make a person feel calm, sedate, and drowsy. Ativan’s active ingredient is lorazepam, which creates a fast-acting high that can reinforce abuse and addiction.


Klonopin is a fast-acting medication used to treat panic attacks. Because panic attacks come on quickly, Klonopin is designed to have an immediate effect to produce relief from the intense anxiety. Its side effects can be severe and unpredictable when it’s mixed with other drugs or substances.


Ambien acts as CNS depressant to alleviate insomnia and other sleep disorders. It can be helpful to people who need help falling asleep, but it can easily be abused for its sedative and calming effects. In addition to being fast-acting, its effects are also long-lasting.
Mixing Prescription Drugs

Negative interactions between prescription drugs are common. That’s why it’s important to consult a doctor to determine what other medications can be taken safely with a prescription. Mixing prescription medications can lead to a compounding effect that is more powerful and potentially dangerous. For instance, mixing two CNS depressants can lead to a drastic reduction in CNS activity leading to coma or death.

Mixing prescription drugs can also increase the likelihood or severity of harmful side effects. For example, some medications interact with nitrates in such a way that may cause heart or blood pressure problems. On the other hand, instead of amplifying a drug’s effects, some drugs interact by negating each others’ positive effects.

Because of the unpredictable and sometimes severe nature of drug interactions, it’s important to disclose to your doctor any and all substances that you may be taking. A doctor will also make recommendations on food intake with prescription drugs to maximize their effectiveness.

Prescription drugs use can turn into abuse

It can be easy to slip into drug abuse even when medications are prescribed by a doctor. The process can happen gradually with longer term use, where users may develop a physical dependence on prescription drugs. This occurs when one feels the need for the drug in order to function properly, even at levels above what have been prescribed by medical professionals.

Some signs of prescription drug abuse include:

  • Inability to stop using drugs even though you want to
  • Attempts at obtaining a prescription illegally or by seeing multiple doctors to get different prescriptions
  • Feeling unable to control how much of the drug is taken
  • Purposefully mixing prescription drugs with other substances such as alcohol to achieve a desired effect
  • Snorting or injecting prescription drugs to achieve a more powerful high

Getting Help

Prescription drug abuse is one of the most common types of substance abuse and can be one of the most complicated to treat. Users may experience severe withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit on their own or may have increased symptoms of the illness or disease the prescription medication was meant to treat. Recovery from prescription drug abuse often involves medical detox to help individuals safely eliminate the drug from the body while mitigating potential withdrawal effects.

As recommended by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a drug addiction treatment program combines detox with therapy and medication as needed. Successful treatment typically incorporates several components to improve physical and mental health while the individual learns to live without the prescription drug. Relapse is common and may be a natural part of the recovery process. Relapse-focused skills training may be incorporated into a treatment program as needed.

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