Prescription drug abuse in the United States is a huge problem. Some experts are even calling it an epidemic. One in 25 adults and teenagers in the US has used a prescription drug in a way other than prescribed. The number of prescription drug addicted babies has tripled in the last 10 years, mimicking the “crack baby” epidemic of the 1980’s. So what are the top 3 abused prescription drugs in the US today?
1.) Narcotic Painkillers: The most commonly abused prescription drugs are narcotic painkillers, namely hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lorcet, Lortab, Norco, Hydro-Apap, etc.), oxycodone (Percodan, Percocet, Tylox, Roxicet, OxyContin, etc.), and codeine (Tylenol #3 & #4, Apap with Codeine, etc.), respectively. These drugs are classified as opiates, because they are derived from the opium plant. Opiates work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain. They bind to the same receptors that our bodies’ natural painkillers bind to. After prolonged opiate use, the body stops producing natural painkillers, resulting in opiate dependency. Opiates are such powerful narcotics that the body can become dependent on them even when they prescribed by a physician for the treatment of pain and are taken in the prescribed dosage.
Twenty-five years ago, doctors did not prescribe opioid pain medication for non-malignant chronic pain out of fear of addiction. These medications were reserved for those suffering from cancer or other terminal diseases. In the 90’s, a shift occurred in the medical community and the focus turned to improving patient quality of life. Prescription drug manufacturers spent millions on marketing and developing new drugs to treat pain. With these prescription drugs flooding the market, prescription drug abuse in the US began to increase exponentially.
2. Benzodiazepines: Benzodiazepines, like Alprazolam (Xanax) and Diazepam (Valium) are the second most commonly abused prescription drugs. Benzodiazepines are a class of drug which is commonly used in a number of medical settings. Most commonly used as anti-anxiety medications, benzodiazepines are also used as sedatives, as anticonvulsant medications, and as muscle relaxants. Benzodiazepines are relatively safe and well-tolerated in the short term.
Benzodiazepines work by enhancing the effect of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. The enhancement is responsible for producing the therapeutic effects of benzodiazepines and for facilitating many of the side effects as well as dependence and withdrawal from these drugs. Other sedative-hypnotics, such as alcohol and barbiturates, have a similar enhancing effect on GABA. This is why benzodiazepines are often used to treat alcohol withdrawal. It is also the reason that mixing benzodiazepines with alcohol or barbiturates can be deadly.
3.) Sleeping Pills: The third most commonly abused drugs in the US are sleeping pills like zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta). These drugs are categorized as sedative hypnotics and are used to treat insomnia. Benzodiazepines and these types of sleeping pills have a similar mechanism of action, but sleeping pills like Ambien and Lunesta have a slightly different chemical structure that theoretically makes them less addictive than benzodiazepines. Common side effects of drugs like Ambien include: diarrhea; dizziness; drowsiness; dry mouth; headache; nausea; nose or throat irritation; sluggishness; stomach upset; weakness.