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What is prescription drug abuse?
Although most people take prescription medications responsibly, there has been an increase in the nonmedical use of or, as NIDA refers to it in this report, abuse1 of prescription drugs in the United States. What are some of the commonly abused prescription drugs? Although many prescription drugs can be abused, there are several classifications of medications that are commonly abused. The three classes of prescription drugs that are most commonly abused are:
■ Opioids, which are most often prescribed to treat pain;
■ Central nervous system (CNS) depressants, which are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders; and
■ Stimulants, which are prescribed to treat the sleep disorder narcolepsy and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Opioids— What are opioids? 
Opioids are commonly prescribed because of their effective analgesic, or pain-relieving, properties. Medications that fall within this class—referred to as prescription narcotics—include morphine (e.g., Kadian, Avinza), codeine, xycodone (e.g., OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet), and related drugs. Morphine, for example, is often used before and after surgical procedures to alleviate severe pain. Codeine, on the other hand, is often prescribed for mild pain. In addition to their pain-relieving properties, some of these drugs—codeine and iphenoxylate (Lomotil) for example—can be used to relieve coughs and diarrhea.

How do opioids affect the brain and body?
Opioids act on the brain and body by attaching to specific proteins called opioid receptors, which are found in the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract. When these drugs attach to certain opioid receptors, they can block the perception of pain. Opioids can produce drowsiness, nausea, constipation, and, depending upon the amount of drug taken, depress respiration. Opioid drugs also can induce euphoria by affecting the brain regions that mediate what we perceive as pleasure. This feeling is often intensified for those who abuse opioids when administered by routes other than those recommended. For example, OxyContin often is snorted or injected to enhance its euphoric effects, while at the same time increasing the risk for serious medical consequences, such as opioid overdose.2 What are the possible consequences of opioid use and abuse? Taken as directed, opioids can be used to manage pain effectively. Many studies have shown that the properly managed, short-term medical use of opioid analgesic drugs is safe and rarely causes addiction—defined as the compulsive and uncontrollable use of drugs despite adverse consequences—or dependence, which occurs when the body adapts to the presence of a drug, and often results in withdrawal symptoms when that drug is reduced or stopped. Withdrawal symptoms include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps (“cold turkey”), and involuntary leg movements. Long-term use of opioids can lead to physical dependence and addiction. Taking a large single dose of an opioid could cause severe respiratory depression that can lead to death. Is it safe to use opioid drugs with other medications? Only under a physician’s supervision can opioids be used safely with other drugs. Typically, they should not be used with other substances that depress the CNS, such as alcohol, antihistamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, or general anesthetics, because these combinations increase the risk of life-threatening respiratory depression.

CNS depressants—
What are CNS depressants? CNS depressants, sometimes referred to as sedatives and tranquilizers, are substances that can slow normal brain function. Because of this property, some CNS depressants are useful in the treatment of anxiety and sleep disorders. Among the medications that are commonly prescribed for these purposes are the following: 
■ Barbiturates, such as mephobarbital (Mebaral) and pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal), are used to treat anxiety, tension, and sleep disorders.
■ Benzodiazepines, such as diazepam (Valium), chlordiazepoxide HCl (Librium), and alprazolam (Xanax), are prescribed to treat anxiety, acute stress reactions, and panic attacks. The more sedating benzodiazepines, such as triazolam (Halcion) and estazolam (ProSom) are prescribed for short-term treatment of sleep disorders. Usually, benzodiazepines are not prescribed for long-term use. 
How do CNS depressants affect the brain and body?
There are numerous CNS depressants; most act on the brain by affecting the neurotransmitter gammaaminobutyric acid (GABA). Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that facilitate communication between brain cells. GABA works by decreasing brain activity. Although the different classes of CNS depressants work in unique ways, it is through their ability to increase GABA activity that they produce a drowsy or calming effect that is beneficial to those suffering
from anxiety or sleep disorders. What are the possible consequences of CNS depressant use and abuse? Despite their many beneficial effects, barbiturates and benzodiazepines have the potential for abuse and should be used only as prescribed. During the first few days of taking a prescribed CNS depressant, a person usually feels sleepy and uncoordinated, but as the body becomes accustomed to the effects of the drug, these feelings begin to disappear. If one uses these drugs long term, the body will develop tolerance for the drugs, and larger doses will be needed to achieve the same initial effects. Continued use can lead to physical dependence and—when use is reduced or stopped— withdrawal. Because all CNS depressants work by slowing the brain’s activity, when an individual stops taking them, the brain’s activity can rebound and race out of control, potentially leading to seizures and other harmful consequences. Although withdrawal from benzodiazepines can be problematic, it is rarely life threatening, whereas withdrawal from prolonged use of other CNS depressants can have life-threatening complications. Therefore, someone who is thinking about discontinuingCNS de pressant therapy or who is suffering withdrawal from a CNS depressant should speak with a physician or seek medical treatment.

Is it safe to use CNS depressants with other medications?
CNS depressants should be used in combination with other medications only under a physician’s close supervision. Typically, they should not be combined with any other medication or substance that causes CNS depression, including prescription pain medicines, some OTC cold and allergy medications, and alcohol. Using CNS depressants with these other substances— particularly alcohol—can slow both the heart and respiration and may lead to death.


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