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Rx Drug Abuse: Common and Dangerous

What are the most abused prescription drugs, and what are the risks?

Stimulants

These drugs, which include Ritalin, Concerta, and Adderall, are often prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). By enhancing brain activity, stimulants increase one's attention, alertness, and energy.

Typically, high school and college students abuse these drugs for different reasons, "both for what I consider typical drug abuse reasons, for its intoxicating or inebriating qualities, to feel good or feel high," Compton says. "But they're also taking it as a performance-enhancing substance to increase their ability to stay up late and to work and concentrate."

Not only are these older students abusing stimulants, so are junior high students, Compton adds. The rates are much higher in high school and college, he says. "But even in the younger group, we see significant abuse."

According to the NIDA, health risks include: addiction and elevated blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. In high doses, stimulants can cause irregular heartbeats and dangerously high body temperature, heart failure, or deadly seizures. Some stimulants can also cause hostility or paranoia.

Opioid Pain Relievers

These potent medications are prescribed for acute or chronic pain, as well as to relieve pain after surgery. They work by blocking pain perception.

Among the opioids, OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percodan are the most commonly abused, Compton says, although other types in this category are also misused.

"OxyContin is very concerning because it's an extremely powerful opioid agent. It's a fantastic medication for people with serious pain. It's just lifesaving for many people," Compton says. But when it's abused, it can have a heroin-like effect.

Teens who abuse opioids tend not to be "drug-naïve," he adds. "They're using other substances as well -- marijuana, alcohol, tobacco." Opioids tend not to be the first substance they try. But adults who are prescribed these painkillers for a legitimate reason, such as serious pain, can also become addicted.

The most dangerous medical risk is severe respiratory depression or death if someone takes a large single dose of an opioid. But other problems can occur, too. "They're very sedating," Compton says. "So accidents would be a real risk as well, driving or even around the house -- falling down, hitting your head, cutting yourself accidentally."

Sedatives and Tranquilizers

Sedatives are also called central nervous system depressants because they work by slowing brain activity and creating a calming effect. They're often prescribed for anxiety, panic attacks, and sleep disorders.

Commonly abused sedatives include Valium and Xanax.

People of all ages may abuse sedatives and tranquilizers, but again, the problem is mostly concentrated in youth and young adults, Compton says.

The drugs can be addictive. These drugs slow brain function, and as a result, a person who stops taking them can have a rebound in brain activity that leads to seizures.

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