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Prescription Drug Abuse


Addiction: A chronic, relapsing disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite serious adverse consequences, and by long-lasting changes in the brain.

Agonist: A chemical entity that binds to a receptor and activates it, mimicking the action of the natural (or abused) substance that binds there.

Antagonist: A chemical entity that binds to a receptor and blocks its activation. Antagonists prevent the natural (or abused) substance from activating its receptor.

Barbiturate: A type of CNS depressant prescribed to promote sleep (usually in surgical procedures) or as an anticonvulsant.

Benzodiazepine: A type of CNS depressant prescribed to relieve anxiety and sleep problems. Valium and Xanax are among the most widely prescribed medications.

Buprenorphine: A mixed opiate agonist/antagonist medication approved by the FDA in October 2002 for the treatment of opioid addiction (e.g., heroin).

Central Nervous System: The brain and spinal cord.

CNS Depressants: A class of drugs that slow CNS function (also called sedatives and tranquilizers), some of which are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders; includes barbiturates and benzodiazepines.

Comorbidity: The occurrence of two disorders or illnesses in the same person, also referred to as co-occurring conditions or dual diagnosis. Patients with comorbid illnesses may experience a more severe illness course and require treatment for each or all conditions.

Detoxification: A process in which the body rids itself of a drug (or its metabolites). During this period, withdrawal symptoms can emerge that may require medical treatment. This is often the first step in drug abuse treatment.

Dopamine: A brain chemical, classified as a neurotransmitter, found in regions that regulate movement, emotion, motivation, and pleasure.

Methadone: A long-acting synthetic opioid medication that is effective in treating opioid addiction and pain.

Narcolepsy: A disorder characterized by uncontrollable episodes of deep sleep.

Norepinephrine: A neurotransmitter present in the brain and the peripheral (sympathetic) nervous system; and a hormone released by the adrenal glands. Norepinephrine is involved in attention, responses to stress, and it regulates smooth muscle contraction, heart rate, and blood pressure.

Opioid: A compound or drug that binds to receptors in the brain involved in the control of pain and other functions (e.g., morphine, heroin, hydrocodone, oxycodone).

Physical Dependence: An adaptive physiological state that occurs with regular drug use and results in a withdrawal syndrome when drug use is stopped; often occurs with tolerance. Physical dependence can happen with chronic—even appropriate—use of many medications, and by itself does not constitute addiction.

Polydrug Abuse: The abuse of two or more drugs at the same time, such as CNS depressants and alcohol.

Prescription Drug Abuse: The use of a medication without a prescription; in a way other than as prescribed; or for the experience or feeling elicited. This term is used interchangeably with "nonmedical" use, a term employed by many of the national surveys.

Psychotherapeutics: Drugs that have an effect on the function of the brain and that often are used to treat psychiatric/neurologic disorders; includes opioids, CNS depressants, and stimulants.

Respiratory Depression: Slowing of respiration (breathing) that results in the reduced availability of oxygen to vital organs.

Sedatives: Drugs that suppress anxiety and promote sleep; the NSDUH classification includes benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and other types of CNS depressants.

Stimulants: A class of drugs that enhances the activity of monamines (such as dopamine) in the brain, increasing arousal, heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, and decreasing appetite; includes some medications used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (e.g., methylphenidate and amphetamines), as well as cocaine and methamphetamine.

Tolerance: A condition in which higher doses of a drug are required to produce the same effect achieved during initial use; often associated with physical dependence.

Tranquilizers: Drugs prescribed to promote sleep or reduce anxiety; the NSDUH classification includes benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and other types of CNS depressants.

Withdrawal: Symptoms that occur after chronic use of a drug is reduced abruptly or stopped.

This page was last updated November 2014

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