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Prescription drug abuse

Sometimes you may need prescription drugs to treat a health condition. A prescription is an order for medicine given by a health care provider

Prescription drug abuse is when you use a prescription drug in a way other than ordered by your health care provider. Prescription drug abuse is a serious and growing problem in the United States. Nearly 1 out of 5 people in this country say they abuse prescription drugs. Prescription drugs are the second most commonly abused drugs after marijuana

If you’re pregnant, it’s OK to take prescription drugs with your health care provider’s OK. But abusing prescription drugs during pregnancy can cause serious problems for both you and your baby. If you’re pregnant and you abuse prescription drugs, tell your health care provider right away. She can help you get treatment to quit. 

If you’re not pregnant, quit abusing prescription drugs before you get pregnant.

How are prescription drugs abused?

When your provider gives you a prescription for medicine, he tells you exactly how much to take, how often to take it and how long to take it. Examples of prescription drug abuse include:

  • Taking more medicine than your provider says you can take
  • Taking the medicine with alcohol or other drugs
  • Using someone else’s prescription medicine

The most commonly abused prescription drugs are central nervous system(CNS) depressants (also called sedatives or tranquilizers), opioids and stimulants.

Can abusing prescription drugs harm your health?

Yes. Prescription drug abuse may cause health problems, including:

  • Breathing problems
  • An irregular heartbeat
  • Dangerously  high body temperature
  • Seizures 

Can abusing prescription drugs cause problems during pregnancy? 

Yes. Abusing these drugs during pregnancy my cause problems for your baby, including:  

  • Low birthweight. This is when a baby is born weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces.
  • Birth defects. These are health conditions that are present at birth. Birth defects change the shape or function of one or more parts of the body. They can cause problems in overall health, how the body develops, or in how the body works.
  • Neonatal abstinence syndrome (also called NAS). This is a group of conditions a newborn can have if his mother is addicted to drugs during pregnancy. NAS happens when a baby gets addicted to a drug before birth and then goes through drug withdrawal after birth. 
  • Miscarriage. This is when a baby dies in the womb before 20 weeks of pregnancy.

What are CNS depressants?

CNS depressants are drugs used to help manage anxiety and sleep disorders. They work by slowing down brain activity and can help you feel calm and relaxed. But these effects are what make these drugs likely to be abused. Common CNS depressants are:

  • Benzodiazepines, like diazepam (Valium®) and alprazolam (Xanex®)
  • Non-benzodiazepine sleep medicines, like zolpidem (Ambien®), eszopiclone (Lunesta®) and zalepon (Sonata®)
  • Barbituarates, like mephobarbital (Mebaral®) and pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal®)

Signs and symtpoms of CNS depressant abuse include:

  • Feeling sleepy, confused or dizzy
  • Having trouble walking
  • Making poor, unsafe choices that can be harmful to you or others, like neglecting children or having unprotected sex with more than one partner
  • Rapid eye movement

Taking CNS depressants with alcohol can cause slowed heart rate and breathing, even leading to death in some cases.

What are opioids?

Opioids are medicines used to relieve pain, especially after injury or surgery. They lessen the amount and strength of pain you feel by affecting your brain’s response to pain. They’re also sometimes used to treat cough or diarrhea. When used properly, opioids can help you manage pain safely. But when these prescription drugs are abused, they can be harmful, even deadly.

Common opioids include:

  • Vicodin®, which contains hydrocodone and acetaminophen (such as Tylenol®); too much acetaminophen can cause liver damage.
  • Oxycodone (Oxycotin®, Percocet®)
  • Morphine (Kadian®, Avinza®)
  • Tylenol 3®, which contains codeine and acetaminophen

Signs and symptoms of opioid abuse include:

  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slow or trouble breathing
  • Confusion
  • Sweating
  • Clumsiness, poor coordination

If you’re abusing opioids, don’t stop taking them without getting treatment from your health care provider first. Quitting suddenly (called cold turkey) can cause severe problems for your baby, including death. Your health care provider or a drug treatment center can treat you with drugs like methadone or buprenorphine. These drugs can help you gradually reduce your dependence on opioids in a way that’s safe for you and your baby. 

What are stimulants?

Stimulants are medicines that help you stay alert and give you energy. They’re used to treat several conditions, including:

  • Attention deficit disorder. This disorder makes it hard for you to focus or pay attention.
  • Depression. This is a medical condition in which strong feelings of sadness last for a long time and interfere with your daily life. It needs treatment to get better.
  • Narcolepsy. This is when the brain can’t control when to sleep and wake.
  • Short-term weight loss

Common stimulants include:

  • Dextroamphetamine (Adderall®, Dexedrine®)
  • Methylphenidate (Concerta®, Ritalin®)

Signs and symptoms of stimulant abuse include:

  • Paranoia. This is thinking that others are trying to harm you because you see, hear or feel things that aren’t really happening.
  • Aggressive behavior, like having arguments or fights
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Weight loss

How can you get help to quit abusing prescription drugs?

Talk to your health provider. He can help you get treatment to quit. Or contact: 

For more information

Mother to Baby

Last reviewed November 2013

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