Prescription Drug Abuse: Symptoms and Treatment Options

Have you ever wondered why some medications are doctor’s prescription only, while you can buy others without ever speaking to a medical professional? Many prescription drugs are classed that way by the FDA because of potential side effects. Others are regulated because they can easily lead to an addiction if abused.

The first step to understanding why people abuse prescriptions and how to help is learning about the different types of prescription drugs. Most abusable prescription drugs fall into one of three categories. These are opioid painkillers, sedatives, and stimulants.

Keep reading to learn more about the medications within these categories and the problem of prescription abuse.

The Painkillers: Opioids, Opiates, and Narcotics

Because of America’s long history with opioid addiction, opioid and narcotic painkillers are the first things most people think of in relation to prescription drug addiction. Throughout the 19th century, patients found themselves addicted to morphine and opium when doctors prescribed them after surgeries. Though the drugs have different names, today’s patients often face a similar problem.

Before we break down the individual medications in these categories, let’s take a minute to differentiate between the types of prescription drugs. Narcotics, opioids, and opiates are often considered interchangeable terms, but they refer to different things.

“Narcotic” is an umbrella term describing a drug that causes “narcosis”, a Greek word meaning insensibility or numbing. Opioids are a subcategory of narcotics, and opiates are a subcategory of opioids. You can think of their relationship like pasta—all spaghetti noodles (opioids) are pasta (narcotics), but not all pasta is spaghetti.

In the pharmacy world, “narcotic” can also refer to Class 1 and 2 regulated substances. When used this way, the term sometimes includes drugs that aren’t opioids.


Derived from opium poppies, opiates are the original narcotic drug. The natural compounds found in these flowers bind to opiate receptors in the brain, blocking pain and causing feelings of relaxation or numbness. This binding also triggers a dopamine release, activating your body’s reward system and making the substance highly addictive.

Common drugs in this category include morphine and codeine. Side effects of taking opiates include CNS depression, slowed breathing, and a reduced heart rate.


Opioids, by contrast, are synthetic or partially-synthetic versions of opiates. These lab-created chemicals bind to the same brain receptors as opiates, triggering a similar physical response. Most prescription narcotics today are opioids, not opiates.

Some common opioid medications include:

  • Oxycodone
  • Hydrocodone
  • Demerol
  • Dilaudid
  • Vicodin
  • Percocet
  • Opana
  • Fentanyl
  • Methadone
  • Heroin

Opioids have other side effects along with feeling high. Many people will experience nausea and constipation, fatigue, confusion, and a lack of coordination. They may also find that they’re increasingly sensitive to pain as their body builds up a tolerance to the drug.

The Sedatives: Benzodiazepines and Barbiturates

Similar to narcotics, benzodiazepines (“benzos”) also depress your central nervous system and have a calming effect on the body. These medications are often prescribed to treat anxiety and related mental health disorders. Abusing benzos or taking them for a long period can permanently alter your brain chemistry, causing you to rely on the drug to function.

Benzo medications include:

  • Valium
  • Ativan
  • Klonopin
  • Ambien
  • Xanax

If Benzos are mainly psychiatric drugs, barbiturates are their physical counterparts. They help to increase muscle relaxation through a neurotransmitter known as GABA. When taken as prescribed, they’re useful for treating seizures, chronic headaches, and severe insomnia.

Some barbiturate drugs include:

  • Amytal
  • Nembutal
  • Seconal

Both barbiturates and benzodiazepines are attractive to people who are stressed out and are looking for more of a “low” than a “high”. Abusing them can have serious consequences, though.

Like narcotics, these drugs depress your CNS, meaning breathing and heart rate can slow to a crawl as blood pressure drops. This means an overdose can quickly lead to coma or death. Both types of substances are addictive, and the risk of overdose increases as users build up a tolerance to the drugs.

The Stimulants: Amphetamines

When most people are asked to name an amphetamine, they’ll immediately jump to the dangerous street drug meth. In smaller doses, though, amphetamines are a valuable medical resource for people dealing with conditions like ADHD. When taken as prescribed, these stimulants work to calm the user’s hyperactive brain and allow them to focus.

Commonly prescribed stimulants include:

  • Concerta
  • Ritalin
  • Adderall
  • Focalin

Thankfully, abuse of prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin is uncommon among people who need to take them. When taken by someone without a related medical condition, though, they can result in a hyperfocused high.

This makes amphetamines attractive to high-performing teens and college students, as evidenced by the fact that almost 8% of 12th graders have abused prescription amphetamines at least once. Some people will also abuse prescription stimulants as party drugs to help them feel “amped up”.

While prescription amphetamines aren’t as addictive as narcotics and sedatives, people who abuse them are still at risk of developing a tolerance and other negative effects. Getting sober from stimulant abuse can also lead to an inability to feel positive emotions as your brain is deprived of feel-good neurotransmitters.

Any of These Types of Prescription Drugs Can Be Abused

Prescription drug addiction doesn’t discriminate. It affects people from all walks of life and can be a devastatingly destructive force. If you or someone you love is struggling with an addiction to any of these types of prescription drugs, it’s time to reach out for help.

For more information about medication abuse or your options for treatment, make sure to keep reading our site. You can also reach out to us on the phone by calling our confidential number, (877)-555-6050. We’re ready to help you take your first steps on the road to recovery.

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