Prescription Drugs

When used under the supervision of a doctor, prescription drugs can be essential in treating illnesses and relieving pain. However, people often misuse or abuse prescription drugs. The three most commonly abused categories of prescription drugs are painkillers, depressants and stimulants.

How does this affect me?

According to the 2013 Monitoring the Future Survey, by the 12th grade, almost 22% of teenagers have used prescription drugs for non-medical use. The misuse and abuse of prescription painkillers were responsible for more than 475,000 emergency department visits in 2009, a number that continues to grow. In 2001, 9,197 people died from a prescription drug overdose; that number jumped to 22,114 in 2012.


Painkillers typically contain opioids naturally derived from poppy flowers, or a lab-made, semi-synthetic substitute. Upon entering the body, opioids bind to opioid receptor sites. This reduces the intensity of pain signals reaching the brain and affects the areas controlling emotion, which diminishes the effects of a painful stimulus. Medications in this category include:

  • Hydrocodone (Ex: Vicodin)
  • Oxycodone (Ex: OxyContin, Percocet)
  • Morphine (Ex: Kadian, Avinza)
  • Codeine


Depressants are prescribed to treat a wide variety of conditions such as anxiety, panic attacks and sleep disorders. Medications in this category include:

  • Barbiturates – often prescribed to promote sleep
  • Benzodiazepines – prescribed to relieve anxiety (Ex: Valium, Xanax)
  • Non-Benzodiazepinic Sleep Medications – used to treat sleep disorders (Ex: Ambien, Lunesta)

Depressants inhibit brain activity causing a drowsy or calming effect.


Stimulants are prescribed to treat disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy and, occasionally, depression. Stimulants affect the brain through a slow and steady release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. Brand-name medications in this category include:

  • Adderall
  • Dexedrine
  • Ritalin
  • Benzedine

What About Over-The-Counter Drugs?

Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs do not require a prescription for purchase or use. These products are widely available at drug stores, supermarkets and convenience stores.

The most commonly abused OTC drugs include those that contain the ingredient DXM (dextromethorphan), which is used to treat cough, cold and flu symptoms. DXM can distort vision, cause dizziness, agitation and paranoia. Hallucinations are another side effect of DXM intoxication. When abused at high enough doses, DXM can suppress the central nervous system, and result in death. DXM can cause psychological dependence and potentially fatal liver damage.

Weight loss drugs like laxatives, diuretics and diet pills can also be abused. Ephedrine is a common stimulant that can be found in diet pills, which can affect the central nervous system, increase metabolism and make your heart beat faster. This can result in heart problems or high blood pressure. Even in a healthy person, diet pills can eventually cause a heart attack or stroke.


Abusing prescription drugs can lead to a variety of adverse health effects, including addiction and affect the brain in ways very similar to illicit drugs.

Short-Term Effects

Short-term effects of painkillers include:

  • Pain relief
  • Euphoria
  • Drowsiness
  • Mental confusion
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Depressed Respiration

Some short-term effects of depressants may include:

  • Depression
  • Confusion
  • Exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Lowered heartbeat
  • Depressed respiration

Some short-term effects of stimulants can include:

  • Increased alertness/attention
  • Increased energy
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Increased respiration

Withdrawal symptoms

When used long-term, opioids can cause physical dependence and addiction. Opioids withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Cold flashes
  • Involuntary leg movements

Depressants withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Insomnia
  • Muscle tremors
  • Anxiety

Once addicted, going “cold turkey” (completely stopping drug use) off of some depressants can have life-threatening consequences, such as seizures, convulsions and, in rare instances, death.

Stimulants withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Depression

Repeated abuse of some stimulants can lead to feelings of hostility or paranoia, even psychosis. Taking high doses of a stimulant may result in dangerously high body temperature and an irregular heartbeat. There is also the potential for cardiovascular failure or seizures.


By what other names are prescription drugs known?

Prescription drugs are known by a variety of other names, dependent on the type.

  • Slang terms for opioids can include Cody, sizzurp, lean, syrup, OC, oxy, oxycotton, oxycet, hillbilly heroin, and percs.
  • Slang terms for depressants can include Downers, downs, reds, red birds, phennies, tooies, yellows, yellow jackets, candy, sleeping pills, zombie pills, barbs, benzos, tranks, and xanies.
  • Slang terms for stimulants can include Uppers, bennies, black beauties, hearts, truck drivers, R-ball, Skippy, the smart drug, and vitamin R.

I was prescribed a painkiller for a surgery. I am now healed and no longer need the medication. What should I do with it?

Prescription medications, particularly those with high abuse potential like painkillers, should be properly disposed of immediately. You can do this by depositing them at a prescription drop box. The prescriptions placed in these boxes are disposed of by law enforcement. Contact your local police department to get more information about prescription drop boxes near you.

What can I do to help prevent prescription drug abuse?

There are several things you can do to help prevent prescription drug abuse including:

  • Only take medicines prescribed to YOU – Your prescription was specially written by a medical doctor for your needs, no one else’s.
  • Take your medications as prescribed – Take the set prescription amount. This amount is designed to administer the precise amount of medication that you need.
  • Never share prescription medication with anyone, including friends or family – Again, your prescription was carefully calculated for you, not someone else.
  • Keep your prescription medication in a safe place – People who abuse prescription medication often steal it from friends and family. Do not leave your prescriptions in an obvious, easily accessible place.
  • When you have healed, dispose of your remaining prescription – This can be done by taking the medication to a prescription drop box. Never throw prescription medication into the trash or flush it down the toilet!
  • Be aware of the signs of physical dependence – If you, or someone you care about, experiences physical dependence on a prescription medication, contact your health care provider immediately for help.

How to Get Help

If you, or someone you know, has a problem with prescription drugs, talk to a trusted adult. Seek out local substance abuse treatment centers in your area for further help. A physician or a counselor should be able to assist you in finding treatment centers.

  • You can also seek out local self-help groups such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA). To find out more information about NA’s services, visit
  • Call Centerstone at 1-888-291-4357 (HELP) to schedule an appointment with a therapist.
  • If you feel like you need immediate help, please call 1-800-681-7444 for 24-hour Crisis Services.