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Types of Prescription Drugs

There are three main types of prescription drugs commonly abused: Opioids (prescribed for pain relief), Depressants (barbiturates and benzodiazepines prescribed for anxiety or sleep problems, often referred to as sedatives or tranquilizers) and Stimulants (prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the sleep disorder narcolepsy, or obesity). Medications can be effective when they are used properly, but some can be addictive and dangerous when misused. Our page provides a brief look at some prescribed medications thatwhen used in ways other than they are prescribedhave the potential for abuse and even addiction.

Fortunately, most Americans take their medications responsibly. Addiction to the various types of prescription drugs is rare. However, in 2003, approximately 15 million Americans reported using a prescription drug for nonmedical reasons at least once during the year.

Types of Prescription Drugs: Opioids

An opioid is a chemical substance that has a morphine-like action in the body. The main use is for pain relief. These agents work by binding to opioid receptors, which are found principally in the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract. The receptors in these two organ systems mediate both the beneficial effects, and the undesirable side effects. Although the term opiate is often used as a synonym for opioid, it is more properly limited to the natural opium alkaloids and the semi-synthetics derived from them.

The broad classes of Opioid narcotics include:

  • endogenous opioid peptides (opioids produced naturally in the body)
  • opiates, such as the naturally occurring alkaloids, morphine and codeine and also heroin (processed morphine)
  • semi-synthetic opioids, created from the natural opioids, such as hydromorphone, hydrocodone, and oxycodone
  • fully synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, pethidine , methadone, and propoxyphene

Types of Prescription Drugs: Depressants

CNS (Central Nervous System) Depressants, sometimes referred to as sedatives and tranquilizers, are substances that can slow normal brain function. Because of this property, some 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.

There are numerous 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 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.

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 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 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 depressants can have life-threatening complications. Therefore, someone who is thinking about discontinuing depressant therapy or who is suffering withdrawal from a depressant should speak with a physician or seek medical treatment.

Types of Prescription Drugs: Stimulants

Stimulants increase alertness, attention, and energy, as well as elevate blood pressure and increase heart rate and respiration. Stimulants historically were used to treat asthma and other respiratory problems, obesity, neurological disorders, and a variety of other ailments. But as their potential for abuse and addiction became apparent, the medical use of stimulants began to wane. Now, stimulants are prescribed for the treatment of only a few health conditions, including narcolepsy, ADHD, and depression that has not responded to other treatments.

Stimulants, such as dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine and Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta), have chemical structures similar to a family of key brain neurotransmitters called monoamines, which include norepinephrine and dopamine. Stimulants enhance the effects of these chemicals in the brain. Stimulants also increase blood pressure and heart rate, constrict blood vessels, increase blood glucose, and open up the pathways of the respiratory system. The increase in dopamine is associated with a sense of euphoria that can accompany the use of these drugs.

As with other drugs of abuse, it is possible for individuals to become dependent upon or addicted to many stimulants. Withdrawal symptoms associated with discontinuing stimulant use includes fatigue, depression, and disturbance of sleep patterns. Repeated use of some stimulants over a short period can lead to feelings of hostility or paranoia. Further, taking high doses of a stimulant may result in dangerously high body temperature and an irregular heartbeat. There is also the potential for cardiovascular failure or lethal seizures.

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