Last updated: 04/30/2019
Author: Addictions.com Medical Review
Reading Time: 3 minutes
It can be hard to figure out the line between prescription drug use and prescription drug abuse because the drugs themselves come from doctors. We believe that things that come from doctors are good and they often are. But, when the drugs are used for a reason other than prescribed, they are no longer good. Non-medical use is simply bad. If you find yourself excusing non-medical prescription drug use: stop.
The Drug Ladder
People accept that prescription drug abuse is drug abuse, but still believe it isn’t as bad as abusing illicit drugs. They’re wrong. Prescription drugs have a multitude of negative side effects and overdose possibilities, but they also serve as a very strong gateway into illicit drug abuse, so why try to keep the two separate?
There isn’t a hierarchy of drug abuse. Marijuana isn’t better than hard drugs, but worse than prescription drugs. Illicit hard drugs aren’t the worst possible drug use. And, prescription drugs aren’t the safest drugs to abuse. The reality is that all drug addiction comes with inherent risks. All drug use that can’t be controlled is a problem and a hazard.
Prescription painkillers have a number of side effects. The following side effects are not exclusively for long-time users. All users of opioid pain meds face potential:
- Constipation. Constipation is the most common side effect of opioids and can show up after only a day or two of prescription painkiller use. Associated difficulties range from hemorrhoids to bowel obstruction.
- Hormone imbalance. Opioid use can diminish levels of testosterone or estrogen (male and female sex hormones). This leads to erectile dysfunction, reduced libido, fatigue, hot flashes, menstrual irregularities, low energy, weight gain and depression. It can also cause serious complications, such as infertility and osteoporosis.
- Worsened pain. It is the opposite of the expectation, but prescription painkillers can intensify pain in some people, even within minutes of taking the drug.
- Weakened immune system. The body’s ability to fight off infection deteriorates instantly upon taking prescription painkillers, even if you don’t get sick until months later.
- Depression. Roughly 1 in 10 patients taking prescription painkillers experiences associated depression.
For individuals taking prescription painkillers non-medically, these side effects are just the beginning because there are a whole group of side effects that are specific to the abuse of these drugs. The following side effects are possible:
- Respiratory depression
- Increased risk of heart attack
Coma and death are often the result of prescription painkiller abuse because the medications slow breathing. Too many painkillers can cause breathing to cease altogether, causing coma or death in a short time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asserts: “Deaths from prescription painkillers have also quadrupled since 1999, killing more than 16,000 people in the U.S. in 2013.”
The CDC reports the most common drugs involved in prescription overdose deaths include:
- Hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin)
- Oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin)
- Oxymorphone (e.g., Opana)
- Methadone (especially when prescribed for pain)
Transition to Hard Drugs
The other major complication of abusing prescription drugs is the probability of it leading to heroin use. An infographic from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) shows 1 in 15 people who take non-medical prescription pain relievers will try heroin within 10 years. Users who shift from prescription painkillers to heroin also increase their severity of dependence. While 14% of non-medical prescription pain reliever users are dependent, 54% of heroin users are dependent.
The switch is attributed to increased chemical tolerance toward prescription painkillers and increasing difficulty in obtaining the necessary medications. Heroin offers the same effects (or the greater effect) needed and comes with a lower price tag and higher availability.
This means that treating prescription painkiller abuse as the lesser of two evils is flawed because one evil can become the other evil. If you find yourself relying on non-medical use of prescription painkillers, the time to stop is now.