The Rising Epidemic: Prescription Pills

Updated: Apr 26, 2019

When Nixon declared war on drugs five decades ago, misuse or abuse of prescription drugs was not on the agenda. Intentional and unintentional misuse of prescription drugs includes not taking medication as prescribed by a physician, taking medication not prescribed for you, or merely taking medication to achieve a euphoric feeling. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has identified opioids (used to treat pain), central nervous system depressants (used to treat anxiety), and stimulants (used to treat attention deficit and sleep disorders) as prescriptions most commonly misused or not used for non-medical treatment. Aside from crowded emergency rooms and increasing needs for recovery programs, the Center for Disease Control reports a significant rise in prescription drug overdoses since 1999, and by 2002 it outnumbered deaths involving cocaine and heroin overdoses. An overwhelming amount of research proves addiction and accessibility as commonalities for drugs like Oxycodone, Valium, Ambien, and Adderall, but patients don’t understand how these drugs affect the body and how an addiction can develop.

What are the effects?

The drugs are very different and affect the body in different ways. Opioids are used to relieve intense and chronic pain by attaching to receptors that reduce the perception of pain felt by the patient. Depressants, like Xanax, slow down the central nervous system and stimulants enhance neurotransmitters that send messages in the brain. With each of the drugs, overuse causes a euphoric feeling, enhanced alertness, or both which creates a perceived benefit the patient wants to access again and again. Frequently, these prescriptions are used long-term and may require increases in the dosage as a result. Little to no stigma is associated with prescription drugs because doctors are the prescribers and many patients report increasing dosage or frequency to relieve more intense pain and symptoms. This combination creates an opportunity to develop an addiction, even when the patient intends to use the medication for medical treatment.

SOURCE: National Vital Statistics System, 1999-2010 (deaths include suicides)

Women and Mental Health

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2014) found 2.1 million Americans used prescription drugs, without a medical need, for the first time within the previous twelve months. Women represented 54% while adolescents, as young as 12 years of age, represented 30% of first time users. In addition to receiving more prescriptions for mental health conditions than male counterparts[1], statistics prove females are also more likely to receive opioid prescriptions.[2] In fact, adolescent females aged 12-17 reported non-medical prescription drug use more frequently than males the same age and were more likely to meet substance use disorder criteria.[3] Although more overdoses result in death amongst males, CDC noted a 400% increase in deaths related to overdoses among American women with prescription painkillers as a primary factor in 1 out of 10 suicides among women.[4] Combining opioids or painkillers with medications intended to manage mental health conditions also increase risks and play a role in overdose deaths for women.

What can you do to reduce risks?

For prevention, be sure to have an honest discussion with your mental health and general practitioner about the medications you are taking to help facilitate a conversation about the risks of opioids outweighing the benefits. Also, discuss whether your condition is acute or chronic to determine the best method to address pain and mental health needs.

If there is suspicion opioid use isn’t under control, ask your physician about evidence-based treatments that address your individual needs. In addition to taking medication as prescribed, avoid taking alcohol with prescription medications.

Be sure to store medication properly by keeping it out of reach or locked away from family members, visitors, and children. Unused pills can be disposed by contacting a community take-back program or ask your pharmacy if they have a mail-back program.


[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018 Annual Surveillance Report of Drug-Related Risks and Outcomes — United States. Surveillance Special Report. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Published August 31, 2018. Accessed September 16, 2018 from www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/pdf/pubs/2018-cdc-drugsurveillance-report.pdf

[3] Cotto JH, Davis E, Dowling GJ, Elcano JC, Staton AB, Weiss SRB. Gender effects on drug use, abuse, and dependence: a special analysis of results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Gend Med. 2010;7(5):402-413. doi:10.1016/j.genm.2010.09.004.

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Vital Signs Prescription Painkiller Overdoses: A Growing Epidemic, Especially Among Women. July 2013. http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/PrescriptionPainkillerOverdoses/index.html.

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