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Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide

Is abuse of prescription medications as dangerous as other forms of illegal drug use?

Psychoactive prescription drugs, which include opioid pain relievers, stimulants prescribed for ADHD, and central nervous system depressants prescribed to treat anxiety or sleep disorders, are all effective and safe when taken as prescribed by a doctor for the conditions they are intended to treat. However, they are frequently abused—that is, taken in other ways, in other quantities, or by people for whom they weren’t prescribed—and this can have devastating consequences.

In the case of opioid pain relievers such as Vicodin® or OxyContin®, there is a great risk of addiction and death from overdose associated with such abuse. Especially when pills are crushed and injected or snorted, these medications affect the brain and body very much like heroin, including euphoric effects and a hazardous suppression of breathing (the reason for death in cases of fatal opioid overdose). In fact, some young people who develop prescription opioid addictions shift to heroin because it may be cheaper to obtain.35

ADHD medications such as Adderall® (which contains the stimulant amphetamine) are increasingly popular among young people who take them believing it will improve their school performance. This too is a dangerous trend. Prescription stimulants act in the brain similarly to cocaine or illegal amphetamines, raising heart rate and blood pressure, as well as producing an addictive euphoria. Other than promoting wakefulness, it is unclear that such medications actually provide much or any cognitive benefit, however, beyond the benefits they provide when taken as prescribed to those with ADHD.36

This page was last updated January 2014

Is abuse of prescription medications as dangerous as other forms of illegal drug use?

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National Institute on Drug Abuse (2014). Is abuse of prescription medications as dangerous as other forms of illegal drug use?. In Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide. Retrieved from http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-adolescent-substance-use-disorder-treatment-research-based-guide/frequently-asked-questions/abuse-prescription-medications-dangerous-other-forms-illegal-drug-use

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