When used properly under a medical doctor's supervision, prescription drugs are safe and effective, however abuse of prescription drugs can be dangerous. Prescription drug abuse is the use of a prescription medication in a way not intended by the prescribing doctor.

Prescription drug abuse includes everything from taking a friend's prescription painkiller for your backache to snorting ground-up pills to get high.

Painkillers are the prescription drugs most commonly abused by teens, followed by stimulants, depressants, and sedatives.



Painkillers are drugs commonly prescribed for pain and are only legally available by prescription. Painkiller abuse can be dangerous, even deadly, with too high a dose or when taken with other drugs, like alcohol. Short-term effects of painkiller abuse may include lack of energy, inability to concentrate, nausea and vomiting, and apathy. Significant doses of painkillers can cause breathing problems. When abused, painkillers can be addictive.

Brand names include: Vicodin, Tylenol with Codeine, OxyContin, and Percocet.

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Stimulants, or uppers, are most commonly prescribed for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but they are also used to treat a variety of conditions such as asthma, respiratory problems, obesity, and sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. When taken in higher doses, these drugs can produce euphoric effects and counteract sluggish feelings.

Health risks related to stimulant abuse include increased heart and respiratory rates, excessive sweating, vomiting, tremors, anxiety, hostility and aggression, and in severe abuse, suicidal/homicidal tendencies, convulsions, and cardiovascular collapse.

Brand names include: Concerta, Dexedrine, and Ritalin.

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Depressants, or downers, are prescribed to treat a variety of health conditions including anxiety and panic attacks, tension, severe stress reactions, and sleep disorders. Also referred to as sedatives and tranquilizers, depressants can slow normal brain function.

Health risks related to depressant abuse include loss of coordination, respiratory depression, dizziness due to lowered blood pressure, slurred speech, poor concentration, feelings of confusion, and in extreme cases, coma and possible death.

Brand names include: Klonopin, Nembutal, Soma, Ambien, Valium, and Xanax.

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Steroids are used to medically treat people with abnormally low testosterone levels or symptoms of body wasting, as is the case with cancer patients. Abuse of steroids is often related to physical appearance, such as a desire to build muscle or change body shape.

While health effects vary by individual, they can include liver cysts and cancer, kidney cancer, jaundice, severe acne, and hair loss.

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Prescription Painkillers

What are Opioids or Painkillers?

Opioids are drugs that contain opium or are derived from and imitate opium. They are prescribed for pain relief and are legally available only by prescription. Most opioid or painkilling drugs are non-refillable and, when used properly under a medical doctor's supervision, are safe and effective. Opioid drugs act by effectively changing the way a person experiences pain.

Morphine derivatives (or "narcotics") come from opioids and are used to therapeutically treat pain, suppress coughing, alleviate diarrhea, and induce anesthesia. When using these narcotics, abusers experience a general sense of well-being by reduced tension, anxiety, and aggression.

Examples of Painkillers

Some of the most well-known painkillers are listed below with the names you might find on a prescription label. Note that although painkillers have different potencies and are taken in different ways, when they are abused, all pose a risk for addiction and other serious effects.

  • Codeine: like morphine, this is found in opium, is weaker in action than morphine, and is used especially as a painkiller.
  • Fentanyl (and fentanyl analogs): a man-made opioid painkiller similar to morphine that is administered as a skin patch or orally.
  • Morphine: the powerful, active ingredient of opium is used as a painkiller and sedative.
  • Opium: from the opium poppy, formerly used in medicine to soothe pain but is now often replaced by derivative alkaloids (as morphine or codeine) or man-made substitutes (opioids).
  • Hydrocodone: often combined with acetaminophen for use as a painkiller. Vicodin is an example.
  • Oxycodone: a narcotic painkiller, for example OxyContin, Percocet, and Percodan.


How are they used?

There are several ways painkillers can be taken. Most users report swallowing pills, but they can also be crushed and snorted or even dissolved in liquid and injected for an intensified effect.


What are the short term effects?

Painkillers can cause drowsiness, inability to concentrate, apathy, lack of energy, constriction of the pupils, flushing of the face and neck, constipation, nausea, vomiting, and most significantly, slowed and shallow breathing. Painkillers should not be used with alcohol, antihistamines, barbiturates, or benzodiazepines - since these substances slow breathing, their combined effects could lead to life-threatening respiratory depression.

Painkiller Overdose: Painkiller abuse can be dangerous, even deadly, with too high a dose or when taken with other drugs, like alcohol. Prescription opioids (pain medications) are associated with more overdoses than any other prescription or illegal drug including cocaine and heroin (ODH VIPP, 2009).

Physical signs of painkiller overdose include pinpoint pupils, cold and clammy skin, confusion, convulsions, severe drowsiness, and slow or troubled breathing.


What are the long term effects?

Long term abuse of painkillers is likely to cause addiction to the drug and withdrawal symptoms when the user stops taking the drug. Associated with addiction is tolerance, which means more and more of the drug or a combination of drugs is needed to produce the same high or euphoric feeling, possibly leading to overdose.

Painkiller Withdrawal: Symptoms of withdrawal can include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes, and involuntary leg movements. Due to the physical dependence produced by chronic use of opioid painkillers, individuals who are prescribed opioid medications need to be monitored not just when they are appropriately taking the medicine, but also when they stop using the drug to reduce or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

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Prescription Stimulants

What are Stimulants?

Stimulants, or uppers, are most commonly prescribed for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but they are also used to treat a variety of conditions such as asthma, respiratory problems, obesity, and sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. When taken in higher doses, these drugs can produce euphoric effects and counteract sluggish feelings induced by depressants or alcohol. When these drugs are taken to stay awake, increase alertness and concentration, boost energy, and get high, that’s called drug abuse.

But drug abuse doesn’t necessarily mean drug use, it can mean sharing and selling too. Sometimes, individuals prescribed drugs for ADHD may save up their pills during the week and share them with friends at weekend parties. They then crush and snort them, or mix with alcohol. Teens also report saving and selling their own ADHD drugs around exam time.

Stimulant abuse often goes along with the use of other substances like alcohol, other prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and the use of illegal substances like marijuana.


Examples of Stimulants:

  • Amphetamines and dextroamphetamine are stimulant drugs whose effects are similar to cocaine.
  • Methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant drug that is part of a larger family of amphetamines.
  • Methylphenidate is a central nervous system stimulant. It has effects similar to, but stronger than, caffeine and less potent than amphetamines.
  • Brand Names Include: Adderall, Dexedrine, Ritalin


How are they used?

Medically, stimulants are prescribed for only a few health conditions, including narcolepsy, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and short-term treatment of obesity. They can be swallowed in pill form, but are typically crushed and snorted or they may be dissolved in liquid and injected by abusers.


What are the short term effects?

Stimulants increase the amount of norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain, which increases blood pressure and heart rate, constricts blood vessels, increases blood glucose, and increases breathing. Effects can feel like an increase alertness, attention, and energy along with a sense of euphoria. There is also the potential for cardiovascular failure (heart attack) or lethal seizures.

Physical symptoms include dilated pupils; decreased appetite; loss of coordination; collapse; increased heart and respiratory rates; elevated blood pressure; dizziness; tremors; headache; flushed skin; chest pain with palpitations; excessive sweating; vomiting; and abdominal cramps.

Psychological symptoms include feelings of restlessness, anxiety, and delusions; hostility and aggression; panic; and in extreme cases of abuse, suicidal or homicidal tendencies. Paranoia, often accompanied by auditory and visual hallucinations, may also occur.

Stimulant Overdose: Overdose or death is preceded by high fever, convulsions, and heart failure. Since death in these cases is partially due to strain on the heart, physical exercise increases the risks of stimulant use


What are the long term effects?

Stimulants can be addictive in that individuals begin to use them compulsively. Taking high doses of some stimulants repeatedly over a short time can lead to feelings of hostility or paranoia. Additionally, taking high doses of a stimulant may result in dangerously high body temperatures and an irregular heartbeat. There is also the potential for cardiovascular failure (heart attack) or lethal seizures.

Withdrawal symptoms associated with discontinuing stimulant use may include depression, disturbance of sleep patterns, fatigue, and apathy.

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Prescription Depressants

What are Depressants?

Depressants, or downers, are often prescribed by doctors to treat a variety of health conditions including anxiety and panic attacks, tension, acute stress reactions, and sleep disorders. When given in high doses, depressants may act as anesthesia.

Often referred to as sedatives and tranquilizers, depressants are substances that can slow normal brain function. Most depressants reduce brain function through a neurotransmitter commonly known as GABA, which is a chemical that enables communication between brain cells.


Examples of Depressants

  • Barbiturates are a type of depressant often prescribed to promote sleep.
  • Benzodiazepines are a type of depressant prescribed to relieve anxiety.
  • Brand names include: Klonopin, Nembutal, Soma, Ambien, Valium, and Xanax.


How are they used?

Depressants may be swallowed, injected, smoked or snorted. Depressants are commonly used to reduce anxiety, induce sleep and lower inhibitions.


What are the short term effects?

While different depressants work in unique ways, they produce a drowsy or calming effect that can help those suffering from anxiety or sleep disorders. Because they can produce a state of intoxication, they have a high potential for abuse.

Physical symptoms include dilated pupils and slurred speech; slowed pulse and breathing; relaxed muscles; intoxication; loss of motor coordination; fatigue, respiratory depression; sensory alteration; and lowered blood pressure. Teens taking barbiturates may exhibit side effects such as slurred speech, dizziness, sedation, drowsiness, and fever. Rohypnol (Flunitrazepam) may cause visual and gastrointestinal disturbances, urinary retention, and temporary memory loss.

Psychological symptoms include poor concentration or feelings of confusion; impaired judgment; and lowered inhibitions. Teens on barbiturates may experience depression, fatigue, confusion, and irritability.


What are the long term effects?

Prolonged or heavy abuse of depressants can result in addiction, impaired sexual function, chronic sleep problems, respiratory depression and respiratory arrest, and death.

Because depressants can be addictive, withdrawal symptoms may be apparent in heavy users. Withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, insomnia, muscle tremors, and loss of appetite. Stopping drug use abruptly, often called going "cold-turkey" off of some depressants can have life-threatening complications, cause convulsions, delirium, and in rare instances, death.

Because all depressants work by slowing the brain's activity, when someone stops taking them, the brain's activity can rebound and race out of control, possibly leading to seizures and other serious consequences. Symptoms of this response including shallow breathing, clammy skin, dilated pupils, weak and rapid pulse, coma, or death.


Other Drug Interactions with Depressants

Depressant abuse is often combined with the use of other drugs like alcohol, other prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and street drugs like marijuana. Combining these substances can be highly dangerous for the reasons that follow.

Alcohol: Using depressants with alcohol, which is a depressant itself, can slow both the heart and breathing to dangerously low rates and may lead to death. When combined with alcohol, the effects and risks of depressants are seriously increased.

Prescription drugs: Some interactions with other drugs can be risky. Depressants should be used in combination with other medications only under a physician's close supervision.

Over-the-counter drugs: Depressants should not be combined with any other medication or substance that causes central nervous system depression, including some over-the-counter cold and allergy medications. Doing so may slow the heart and breathing, a serious health risk.

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Anabolic Steroids

What are Steroids?

"Steroids" refers to the class of drugs used to treat a wide variety of conditions, from supporting reproduction (e.g., estrogen) and regulation of metabolism and immune function, to increasing muscle and bone mass and treating inflammation and asthma (e.g., cortisone).


What Are Anabolic Steroids?

"Anabolic" steroids are the class of steroids used to increase muscle and bone mass. These drugs are manufactured in a laboratory to imitate the male sex hormone, testosterone. Despite the fact that there are various types of steroids, teens and athletes of all ages tend to abuse the "anabolic" muscle-building kind.

While anabolic steroids are available legally by prescription, they are most often prescribed to treat conditions that occur when males produce abnormally low amounts of testosterone, which can result in delayed puberty, osteoporosis (weak bones), and impotence. They are also prescribed to treat body wasting in patients with AIDS and other diseases that result in loss of lean muscle mass. However, abuse of anabolic steroids can lead to serious health problems, some irreversible.


How are steroids used?

Steroids differ from other drugs of abuse in that they are abused in order to change the body physically rather than to achieve a high. Steroids are often taken by injection, which increases the risk the user will contract HIV or hepatitis infection from an unsterile needle or syringe. Doses taken by abusers can be up to 100 times more than the doses used for treating medical conditions.

Anabolic steroids can be taken in the following ways:

  • Injection directly into the bloodstream
  • Swallowed as tablets or capsules
  • Ointments or patches (through the skin)
  • Preparations that are placed between the cheek and gum of mouth


What are the effects?

Both men's and women's bodies produce a certain level of testosterone. When teens take steroids, they are adding more testosterone to their growing bodies, which throws off their hormonal balance.

The effects of steroid abuse may include: sterility; damage to the cardiovascular system and liver; increased risk of injury; and disease, such as increased levels of cholesterol, causing a thickening of arterial walls that could ultimately be life threatening.

Some health effects are reversible, like acne and mood swings, while others (such as baldness and stunted growth) are not. A doctor should also supervise and help your teen stop taking steroids safely.


Short-term effects

Effects vary by individual, but general short-term negative effects for both sexes include hostility, aggression, and acne.

Steroids can have a magnified effect on teens since their bodies are still growing. Any unnatural substances, such as anabolic steroids, that are designed to physically alter a body before adulthood, can result in stunting height, and this can be permanent

Males may experience shrunken testicles, difficulty or pain in urinating, become infertile or impotent, development of breasts, hair loss, and increased risk for prostate cancer.

Girls can experience an excessive growth of body and facial hair, male-pattern baldness, decreased body fat and breast size, changes in or cessation of the menstrual cycle, and a deepened voice.


Long-term effects

The long-term effects for both males and females are similarly related to extreme stresses to the body. Long-term effects include high blood pressure; increased risk of blood clotting; increases in LDL (bad cholesterol), decreases in HDL (good cholesterol); jaundice (yellowish skin color, tissues, and body fluids); liver cysts and cancer; kidney cancer; fluid retention; and severe acne.

Mental effects: While steroids are not taken as mood-altering drugs, they do have potentially negative psychological effects when abused. Scientific research has shown that aggression and other psychiatric side effects may result from abuse of anabolic steroids. Many users report feeling good about themselves while on anabolic steroids, but researchers report that extreme mood swings also can occur, including hyperactivity or agitation, and uncontrolled aggression (known as "roid rage"), which can lead to violence.

Steroid Withdrawal: Many steroid abusers feel strong and "happy" when they are using. When they stop, they can experience feelings of depression, which can result in dependence. Researchers also report that users may suffer from paranoid jealousy, extreme irritability, delusions, and impaired judgment stemming from feelings of invincibility.


Where Do Teens Get Steroids?

Since anabolic steroids are available only by prescription, and because they are regulated like narcotics, anabolic steroid abusers often obtain the drugs illegally. Some of the ways abusers can get steroids include: purchasing steroids manufactured in an illegal drug laboratory (not subject to FDA standards and regulations), purchasing drugs which have been smuggled from other countries, purchasing through Internet sales, or stealing from U.S. pharmacies.

Forms of anabolic steroids containing androstenedione or "andro" can be purchased legally without a prescription through many commercial sources, including health food stores. An anabolic steroid precursor is a steroid that the body converts into an anabolic steroid. There is evidence that they may increase the risk of serious, long-term health problems.

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Information sourced from The Partnership at DrugFree.org


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