Drug Facts: Prescription Drug Abuse

First published 2003. To view the latest Heads Up content, click here.



Caution: Central Control Problem
The brain controls everything the body does. The spinal cord carries messages between the body and the brain. Together, they make up the central nervous system (CNS). Some prescription drugs slow down, or depress, the CNS. Others speed up, or stimulate, the CNS. People who abuse CNS stimulants or depressants give control of their bodies to the drug, sometimes with dangerous consequences.

Helpful When Needed
People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have lots of trouble concentrating. For them, the CNS stimulant drugs Ritalin and Adderall have a calming effect, helping them focus. “When they are taken in the dosage and form prescribed by a physician, these are safe drugs that help a lot of kids,” says Dr. Cindy Miner, deputy director of the Office of Science Policy and Communications at NIDA.

Research shows that people with ADHD don’t get addicted when they take these drugs as prescribed. “The theory is that those kids have a brain chemistry imbalance that is stabilized by the medication,” says Dr. Miner. But some teens steal or buy the drugs on the street. “If you’re buying those drugs from other kids, you’re playing with potent drugs. You’re really putting yourself at risk,” warns Dr. Miner. Effects of high doses can include paranoia, convulsions, muscle twitching, and addiction. Withdrawal symptoms include depression.


Dangerous Mix
When a doctor prescribes medications to treat disease, he or she knows the patient’s weight, warns of side effects, and prescribes a specific dose and form of the drug. When an abuser buys the medication on the street, he or she knows none of this, and problems—sometimes lethal—can occur. Emergency room doctors see many patients who have taken the wrong dose of a prescription drug or mixed over-the-counter (OTC) medications or prescription drugs with alcohol or other drugs.

Alcohol is especially dangerous when mixed with drugs. Alcohol slows the heart and respiratory system, and changes the way messages travel in the brain. Alcohol can also intensify the effects of drugs in the body. Mixed with opioid painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin, or CNS depressants such as Valium and Xanax, alcohol can slow breathing, causing respiratory failure and death.

Many OTC medications are combinations of drugs and should never be mixed with other medications or alcohol. For example, when cough syrup containing the CNS depressant dextromethorphan (DXM) is abused or mixed with other drugs, the syrup can contribute to car accidents when the abuser is slow or unable to react.


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