Prescription drug abuse has been variably and inconsistently defined based on drug prescription status, the uses that occur without a prescription, intentional use to achieve intoxicating effects, route of administration, co-ingestion with alcohol, and the presence or absence of abuse or dependence symptoms.
Prescription drug abuse means taking a prescription medication that is not prescribed for you, or taking it for reasons or in dosages other than as prescribed. Abuse of prescription drugs can produce serious health effects, including addiction.
Prescription drugs are the second most commonly abused category of drugs, behind marijuana and ahead of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs. The National Institutes of Health estimates that nearly 20 percent of people in the United States have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons.
In 2000, about 43 percent of hospital emergency admissions for drug overdoses (nearly 500,000 people) happened because of misused prescription drugs. This type of drug abuse is increasing partially because of the availability of drugs, including online pharmacies that make it easier to get the drugs without a prescription, even for minors.
Long-term use of opioids or central nervous system depressants can lead to physical dependence and addiction. Opioids can produce drowsiness, constipation and, depending on amount taken, can depress breathing. Central nervous system depressants slow down brain function; if combined with other medications that cause drowsiness or with alcohol, heart rate and respiration can slow down dangerously. Taken repeatedly or in high doses, stimulants can cause anxiety, paranoia, dangerously high body temperatures, irregular heartbeat, or seizures.
The growing population of aging Baby Boomers are also prime candidates for prescription drug abuse, intentional or not, as are the elderly. Once someone begins taking a number of pills for things like managing blood pressure and cholesterol, it becomes easier to take narcotic pain killers, prescription sleep aids and other, more addictive drugs. It also increases the risk of negative and possibly fatal interactions between drugs, especially when they are not used as prescribed.
According to results from the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an estimated 2.4 million Americans used prescription drugs nonmedically for the first time within the past year, which averages to approximately 6,600 initiates per day. More than one-half were females and about a third were aged 12 to 17.
Risk factors for prescription drug abuse include: past or present addictions to other substances, including alcohol; younger age, specifically the teens or early 20s; exposure to peer pressure or a social environment where there's drug use; easy access to prescription drugs (such as working in a health care setting); lack of knowledge about prescription drugs, or thinking that taking someone else's prescription drug is safe because it was prescribed by a doctor.
Because commonly abused prescription drugs activate the brain's reward center, it's easy to become addicted to them. People who are addicted continue to use a drug even when that drug makes their lives worse - just like people addicted to nicotine continue smoking cigarettes even when it harms their health and they want to quit.
In 2007, approximately 27,000 unintentional drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States, one death every 19 minutes. Prescription drug abuse is the fastest growing drug problem in the United States. The increase in unintentional drug overdose death rates in recent years has been driven by increased use of a class of prescription drugs called opioid analgesics. Since 2003, more overdose deaths have involved opioid analgesics than heroin and cocaine combined.
In fact, 76% of nonmedical users report getting drugs that had been prescribed to someone else, and only 20% report that they acquired the drug from their own doctor. Furthermore, among persons who died of opioid overdoses, a significant proportion did not have a prescription in their records for the opioid that killed them; in West Virginia, Utah, and Ohio, 25%–66% of those who died of pharmaceutical overdoses used opioids originally prescribed to someone else. These data suggest that prevention of opioid overdose deaths should focus on strategies that target 1) high-dosage medical users and 2) persons who seek care from multiple doctors, receive high doses, and likely are involved in drug diversion.