Prescription Drugs Effects & Warning Signs

Prescription medications provide relief for millions of people worldwide. When used properly, stimulants help some people focus, sedatives allow others to sleep, anti-anxiety medications bring some people peace, and pain medications help others recover and recuperate. Despite their ability to improve the lives of many, prescription medications also present the possibility of abuse.

Because of their potency, prescription medications can have dramatic effects on the brain and nervous system when used in excess of a physician’s recommendations. They can cause powerful pleasurable feelings, extreme relaxation, euphoria, and a strong sense of well-being. Pursuit of these pleasurable feelings can lead to addiction, but fortunately there is help and hope available for those who seek freedom from prescription drug  addiction.

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Prescription drug abuse is on the rise. According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), nearly 1 million emergency room visits in 2009 were tied to prescription drug abuse, and emergency room visits for opioids, stimulants, and depressants all increased over the prior five years. Approximately 52 million American have used prescription drugs recreationally.

Causes and Risk Factors for Prescription Drug Abuse

Researchers suggest that both genetic and environmental factors play a role in a person’s risk of developing a prescription drug use disorder. These include the following:

Genetic: A consistent body of research suggests that genetics play a role in a person’s risk of abusing prescription drugs. People with family members who abuse substances are more likely themselves to also abuse substances. Researchers are also beginning to discover certain genetic markers that may suggest an increased vulnerability to substance abuse.

Environmental: Along with heredity, a person’s environment also affects his or her chances of developing a substance use disorder. People with access to prescription drugs are more likely to abuse them. Those who grow up in home environments with substance users are also more likely to abuse substances as adults, and people whose friends abuse prescription drugs are also more likely to abuse them.

Risk Factors:

  • Suffering from an injury or illness requiring prescription drugs
  • Having a history of suffering from chronic pain
  • Family history of mental illness or substance use
  • Personal history of mental illness or substance use
  • Lack of adequate supervision from one’s prescribing physician
  • Easy access to prescription medications
  • Exposure to severe, chronic stress and lacking appropriate coping skills
  • Having a history of abuse or neglect

Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse

Because of the wide range of prescription drugs, not all cases of prescription drug abuse look the same. For example, someone who uses stimulants will look different from someone who abuses opioids. However, there are some common signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse, such as:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Visiting multiple doctors to obtain multiple different prescriptions
  • Stealing or lying
  • Unexplained absences from school or work
  • Declines in work and/or academic performance
  • Change in peer group
  • Not participating in activities one used to enjoy

Physical symptoms:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Changes in appetite
  • Tremors, spasms, or shakes
  • Loss of coordination
  • Slurred or incoherent speech

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor memory, attention, or concentration
  • Disorientation , confusion, or delirium
  • Impaired judgment
  • Poor problem-solving abilities
  • Slow thought processes
  • Hallucinations or delusions

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Withdrawal from relationships
  • Fluctuations in mood
  • Emotional numbness or detachment
  • Agitation or irritability
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Inability to experience pleasure
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Prescription Drug Abuse

The effects of prescription drug abuse can be severe. The effects on each individual person often depend on length and extent of prescription medication use. Such effects can include:

  • Organ damage or organ failure
  • Strained or broken relationships
  • Financial difficulties
  • Academic failure
  • Loss of job
  • Loss of child custody
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Emergence or worsening of mental illness symptoms
  • Death, either from suicide or overdose

Co-Occurring Disorders

People who take prescription drugs do so because they have other physical or mental health struggles. Along with these pre-existing struggles, those who abuse prescription drugs may meet criteria for the following mental health disorders:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Personality disorders
  • Other substance use disorders

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of prescription drug withdrawal: Over time, someone who abuses prescription drugs becomes physiologically dependent on them. When this person attempts to cease using such drugs, his or her body must readjust to working without them. This readjustment is known as withdrawal and can include the following symptoms:

  • Aches and pains
  • Weakness
  • Tremors or shakes
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Confusion or delirium
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Vivid dreams
  • Fatigue
  • Exhaustion
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Agitation, frustration, or irritability
  • Intense cravings for the drug

Effects of prescription drug overdose: An overdose occurs when a person takes more of a substance than his or her body can handle.  An overdose is a dangerous and potentially fatal situation. If you or a loved one uses prescription drugs and experiences the following symptoms, seek medical attention immediately to prevent a fatal outcome:

  • Difficulty with breathing
  • Changes in skin color, texture, or moisture
  • Disorientation, confusion, or delirium
  • Loss of ability to communicate
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • Seizures
  • Loss of consciousness or coma
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