What Is This Drug Used to Treat?

5 min read · 10 sections

Colorful pills and medicines in the hand

Different drugs are used to treat different physical and mental health conditions. Some of the most common drugs used to treat mental health disorders include the following:

  • Opioids are used primarily to alleviate pain but may also be used to treat coughing and diarrhea.
  • Benzodiazepines are a class of sedative medications used to treat various anxiety-related conditions, muscle spasms, seizures, alcohol withdrawal, and in some cases, insomnia.
  • Stimulants help reduce symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy.
  • Antidepressants are medications prescribed to treat depression, anxiety, and some chronic pain syndromes.
  • Antipsychotics relieve symptoms of psychosis (hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking).
  • Anticonvulsants are used to treat seizure disorders, neuropathic pain, and as mood stabilizers for certain mental health conditions.

These drugs are safe when taken as prescribed. However, several of them can lead to addiction, dependence, and tolerance, and a few of them can cause overdose and even death if the person takes too high a dose or combines them with other drugs.

Suddenly stopping some of these medications after a period of consistent use can also lead to withdrawal symptoms. Talk to your doctor before you quit using them.

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What Are Opioids For?

Opioids are medications prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain, coughing, and diarrhea. Some opioids are manufactured from opiate precursor substances derived directly from the opium poppy plant, while others are entirely lab-synthesized. Users typically experience euphoria, relaxation, and pain relief when taking these drugs.1

Opioid drugs work by attaching to opioid receptors located throughout the body, including in the brain and spinal cord. Once attached, these drugs activate the receptors and, through the ensuing cascade of neurochemical events, blunt the perception of pain signals reaching the central nervous system. Opioid use is also associated with a surge of dopamine, which can result in an intensely pleasurable feeling, especially when a large amount of the drugs is consumed.1

Commonly prescribed opioids include hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), oxymorphone, morphine, codeine, and fentanyl.1

In addition to their pleasurable effects, opioids can cause short-term effects such as:1

  • Confusion.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Nausea.
  • Constipation.
  • Slowed breathing.
  • Hypoxia, a condition in which the brain receives too little oxygen, which can also lead to brain damage, coma, and death.

Long-term effects of opioid use can include:2

  • Constipation.
  • Breathing-related sleeping problems.
  • Heart attack.
  • Heart failure.
  • Dizziness and sedation, which can increase the risk for falls and fractures.
  • Suppressed immune system functioning.
  • Sexual dysfunction, infertility, and fatigue in men.
  • Osteoporosis, infrequent menstrual periods, and lactation in women.

Opioids can carry a high risk for overdose, especially if taken in larger amounts than prescribed. During an opioid overdose, a person may develop shallow breathing or stop breathing altogether. This can result in decreased oxygen in the brain, permanent brain damage, coma, or death.1

Physical dependence is another effect of repeated opioid use. A person who has developed opioid dependence will likely go into withdrawal when they stop using or take a lower dose. Dependence often develops alongside tolerance, which arises as a person begins to feel less of an effect from the drug over time.1

During opioid withdrawal, a person may experience muscle and bone pain, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes, uncontrollable leg movements, sleeping difficulties, and cravings. These symptoms can begin within hours of stopping the drug.1

Finally, heavy use of prescription opioids can lead to addiction, in which a person’s compulsive drug use causes health problems and an inability to take care of daily responsibilities at work, home, or school. Opioid abuse and addiction have become significant global public health issues, but awareness and treatment efforts have been stepped up, especially in recent years. A combination of behavioral therapies and medications can help people struggling with compulsive opioid use.1

What Are Benzos For?

Benzodiazepines, or benzos for short, are commonly used to treat anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and panic disorder. In some cases, they are also used for certain types of muscle spasms, as anticonvulsants, and to manage alcohol withdrawal.3,4,5

Benzos increase the activity of gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that inhibits certain brain activity, therefore causing an anti-anxiety and sedating effect.4,5

Frequently prescribed benzos include alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan), temazepam (Restoril), and chlordiazepoxide (Librium).4,5

Benzos differ in how fast they are absorbed into the bloodstream and act on the body, which can range from 6 to 24 hours or more. Their duration of action also varies. Short-acting benzos, such as alprazolam, lorazepam, and temazepam, are cleared from the body relatively quickly, while long-acting benzos, such as clonazepam, diazepam, and chlordiazepoxide exert their effects for longer durations.5,6

People may abuse benzos for their euphoric effects and, in seeking to enhance their subjective experiences, combine them with other drugs, including cocaine and alcohol. Long-term use of benzos can lead to tolerance, dependence, and addiction. Withdrawal symptoms—which usually occur in people who have taken benzos for more than a few months—include anxiety, insomnia, tremors, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and seizures. 5,6 Because of the risk for dependence, benzos are typically prescribed for short periods of time.3

Benzos do not often cause overdoses unless they are combined with other depressants such as alcohol or opioids—which can lead to severe respiratory depression and death.5,6

What Are Stimulants For?

Stimulants are drugs that improve attention and alertness and increase energy, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing.3 Prescription stimulants are often used to treat children and adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In some cases, they may also be prescribed to treat depression, narcolepsy, obesity, and Parkinson’s disease.7

Different stimulant drugs work by causing an increased release and/or buildup of several neurotransmitters, including dopamine and norepinephrine, in the synapses of the brain. This leads to effects like increased focus, concentration, and wakefulness.7

Commonly prescribed stimulants include methylphenidate (Concerta and Ritalin), amphetamine (Adderall), and dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine, ProCentra, and Zenzedi).7

Like opioids and benzodiazepines, stimulants can be addictive, especially when misused or taken without a prescription. Stimulant abuse can also lead to physical and psychological dependence. Users may take amphetamines in a “binge and crash” pattern that results in depression, anxiety, fatigue, and cravings when the binge ends.7

What Are Antidepressants For?

Antidepressant medications treat depression, but also may be used to treat anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), insomnia, adult ADHD, eating disorders, and chronic pain.3,8,9 Antidepressants are frequently combined with psychotherapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy to treat depression.8

While it is unknown exactly how antidepressants work, it is believed that they increase levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin and norepinephrine, which have effects on mood. Some antidepressants also have an impact on the transmission of pain signals in the brain, which can help alleviate chronic pain.8

There are several different categories of antidepressants on the market:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are the most widely prescribed antidepressants because they are associated with the least negative side effects.8 Commonly prescribed SSRIs include fluoxetine (Prozac), citalopram (Celexa), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), and escitalopram (Lexapro).3
  • Serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors, or SNRIs, are similar to SSRIs in their effects. They include duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor).3,8
  • Noradrenergic and specific serotonergic antidepressants (NASSAs) have a similar side effect profile as some SSRIs, but are less likely to cause sexual dysfunction. Mirtazapine (Remeron) is one type of NASSA.8
  • Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) are an older type of antidepressant that are generally only prescribed for severe depression that has not responded to other types of medications. This category of antidepressant is more likely than others to cause unpleasant side effects and possible overdose. TCAs include imipramine (Tofranil) and clomipramine (Anafranil). Other types of older antidepressants include tetracyclics and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), which can cause serious side effects.8

It typically takes 1 to 2 weeks—and even up to 6 weeks in some cases—for a person to experience the benefits of these drugs. Approximately 50% to 65% of people treated with antidepressants will experience an improvement in symptoms.9

Common antidepressant side effects include:3

  • Stomach issues, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • Weight gain.
  • Fatigue.
  • Sexual dysfunction.

Certain antidepressants may have additional side effects characteristic to their respective classes. SSRIs and SNRIs are associated with the least number of side effects compared to other types of antidepressants. Tricyclics are known to cause dry mouth, tremor, constipation, and increased heart rate. Older adults on TCA therapy may also experience confusion, faintness, and may be at increased risk for falls. MAOIs can lead to seriously high blood pressure if a person consumes foods with the ingredient tyramine. Tricyclics and MAOIs are prescribed less frequently than other antidepressants for these reasons.9

Antidepressants aren’t considered addictive, and they don’t lead to tolerance or physiological dependence in the same manner as drugs of abuse. However, some of them are associated with what is known as discontinuation syndrome, which is essentially withdrawal. Up to a third of people who stop taking SSRIs and SNRIs experience withdrawal symptoms such as:9

  • Upset stomach.
  • Flu-like symptoms.
  • Anxiety.
  • Dizziness.
  • Strange dreams.
  • “Electric shock” sensations.

These symptoms can last from 2 weeks to 2 months.9

People who want to stop taking their antidepressants should speak to their doctor, who can set up a tapering scheduled to gradually reduce the dose over time.9 

What Are Antipsychotics For?

Sick patient taking pill-bottle with antipsychotic medication from doctor hands Antipsychotics are used to treat symptoms of psychosis, which can be present in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression. Psychosis involves a loss of contact with reality and may include distorted thinking, hallucinations, and delusional thoughts. Antipsychotics help alleviate these symptoms by altering brain chemistry, specifically dopamine levels, which reduces hallucinations and delusions.3,10

Antipsychotics may also be prescribed along with other medications to help treat delirium, dementia, ADHD, eating disorders, PTSD, OCD, and anxiety.3

Atypical antipsychotics are newer medications used to treat psychosis. Common atypical antipsychotics include risperidone (Risperdal), olanzapine (Zyprexa), paliperidone (Invega), aripiprazole (Abilify), quetiapine (Seroquel), lurasidone (Latuda), and ziprasidone (Geodon).3,10

Typical antipsychotics are older-generation medications that are prescribed less frequently because they have more serious side effects than newer atypical antipsychotics. The once-commonly-prescribed typical antipsychotics include fluphenazine (Prolixin), haloperidol (Haldol), chlorpromazine (Thorazine), and perphenazine (Trilafon).3 Branded formulations of these early generation antipsychotic medications have largely been discontinued.

Antipsychotics may relieve symptoms such as agitation and hallucinations within a few days of use. Other symptoms, such as delusions, may continue to last for a few weeks after starting the medications, and the full effects may not be felt for up to 6 weeks.3

Antipsychotic medications can cause side effects such as: 3,10

  • Dry or watery mouth.
  • Nausea.
  • Constipation.
  • Weight gain.
  • Sweating.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Dizziness.
  • Restlessness.
  • Uncontrollable tics and tremors.
  • Muscle stiffness.
  • Blurry vision.
  • Sexual dysfunction.
  • Menstrual issues.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Low white blood cell count.
  • Seizures.

Tardive dyskinesia (TD) is a long-term effect of taking typical antipsychotics. It involves involuntary, uncontrollable movements, often most notably around the mouth, that can range from mild to severe. In some cases TD is permanent, but some people do recover once they stop taking antipsychotics.3

Some people stop taking the medications when they feel better, which can lead to a return of their symptoms. People should not discontinue antipsychotic medications without talking to their doctor first. Going off the medication must be done slowly, through a tapering process. Many people need to stay on the drugs for months or years.3

Antipsychotics are not considered addictive and do not lead to tolerance.10

What Are Anticonvulsants For?

Anticonvulsants are medications that are intended to treat epilepsy or seizure disorders. However, certain varieties are also effective at treating pain, anxiety, dementia, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. They are known to calm the nerves that transmit pain signals, which can help reduce pain and improve sleep.11,12

Carbamazepine (Tegretol), valproate (Depakote), lamotrigine (Lamictal), pregabalin (Lyrica), and gabapentin (Neurontin) are anticonvulsants that may be prescribed to treat these conditions.11,12

Common side effects of taking anticonvulsants may include:11

  • Dry mouth.
  • Weight gain.
  • Dizziness.
  • Drowsiness.

Less common side effects, such as blurry vision, swelling of the legs, headache, vomiting, and diarrhea may also occur.11

People may not experience the beneficial effects of these medications for several weeks. So it is important to keep taking them even if you don’t feel any relief from your symptoms. Most people are prescribed a gradually increasing dose to take over several weeks.11

Similar to antipsychotics, people taking anticonvulsants should be tapered off of them and not stop using them suddenly. Abruptly quitting them may lead to withdrawal effects.11

What Are the Top Diseases/Issues That Affect Americans and What Medications Are Used?

Though many Americans suffer from the conditions outlined above, other chronic diseases affect a large percentage of the population. Various medications have been developed to help people cope with these issues.

  • Depression and anxiety are two of the top health conditions facing Americans today. Approximately 14.8 million Americans over 18 experience a major depressive disorder each year, and around 6.8 million suffer from generalized anxiety disorder. Antidepressants and benzodiazepines are the leading treatments for depression and anxiety.13
  • Around 2-3% of Americans have a severe case of hypothyroidism, and 10-15% have a mild case of hypothyroidism, which is caused by an underactive thyroid gland. The replacement hormone medication levothyroxine (Synthroid) is the treatment of choice for this condition. 13
  • High cholesterol affects around 99 million Americans. This prevalent condition reflects a high risk for cardiovascular diseases, including heart attack and stroke. Medications such as rosuvastatin (Crestor) help regulate cholesterol and triglyceride levels and are used to treat this condition.13
  • Heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or acid reflux, affect nearly 20% of Americans. Over-the-counter and prescription medications that target heartburn, such as esomeprazole (Nexium), are available.13
  • Nearly 25 million Americans, including 7 million children, currently suffer from asthma. In addition, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is the third-leading cause of death in the United States and leads to blocked airflow and difficulty breathing. Albuterol (Ventolin) can help treat asthma, and the combination of fluticasone and salmeterol (Advair) can treat asthma and COPD.13
  • High blood pressure affects approximately one-third of adults in America, and it can lead to heart and kidney problems. Medications that relax and widen the blood vessels, such as valsartan (Diovan), can help blood flow more easily throughout the body and improve this condition.13
  • According to a 2014 report, nearly 29 million Americans suffer from diabetes, which was a significant increase from past years. Insulin replacement formulations, such as Lantus, are the treatment of choice for type 1 and 2 diabetes.13

If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental or physical health problem, reach out for help today. Many conditions are treatable with the right medication, therapies, and lifestyle changes.

Contact a health provider or addiction professional who can find the right treatment program for you. 

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  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). DrugFacts: Prescription opioids.
  2. Baldini, A., Von Korff, M., & Lin, E. H. (2012). A review of potential adverse effects of long-term opioid therapy: a practitioner’s guideThe Primary Care Companion to CNS Disorders14(3).
  3. National Institute of Mental Health. (2016). Mental health medications.
  4. University of Maryland Center for Substance Abuse Research. (2013). Benzodiazepines.
  5. Drug Enforcement Agency. (2013). Benzodiazepines.
  6. Longo, L. P., & Johnson, B. (2000). Addiction: Part I. Benzodiazepines-side effects, abuse risk and alternatives. American Family Physician, 61(7), 2121-2128.
  7. Center for Substance Abuse Research. (2013). Amphetamines.
  8. (2015). Antidepressants.
  9. Royal College of Psychiatrists. (2018). Antidepressants.
  10. SANE Australia. (2017). Antipsychotic medication.
  11. Oxford University Hospitals. (2013). Anticonvulsant drugs for the treatment of pain.
  12. Grunze, H. C. (2008). The effectiveness of anticonvulsants in psychiatric disorders. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 10(1), 77-89.
  13. Speights, K. (2014). Seven biggest health problems Americans face. USA Today.
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