Talk About Prescriptions Month
October is Talk About Prescriptions Month, and its observance couldn’t come at a better time. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a June survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed dramatic increases in depression, anxiety, and drug use among Americans. Although studies have indicated an increase in alcohol use, experts warn that many Americans are now also uniquely susceptible to prescription drug abuse.
Due to stay-at-home mandates, rules against social gathering, and general isolation, some individuals are resorting to prescription drug use over social drinking to cope. As prescription drug use increases, it’s vital to understand the medication types, physical and mental effects, and the associated risks of popular prescription drugs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, these three classifications of prescription drugs are most often abused.
Since the mid-90s, opioid abuse has led to an American epidemic of overdoses and addiction. Prescription opioids include the medication types of codeine, hydrocodone, morphine, oxycodone, and fentanyl. Popular brands of prescription opioids include Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, Actiq, and Soma. While some metrics indicated a flattening of opioid abuse in 2019, a recent report by the American Medical Association warned that, since the onset of the pandemic, “more than 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality.”
Due to its effects on both lung and heart health, opioid abuse is particularly dangerous in terms of its relation to COVID-19. The most problematic symptom of the coronavirus is decreased lung capacity, and opioid abuse can further diminish the lung function of an infected individual, leading to respiratory failure. Although opioids manage pain well and can improve someone’s quality of life, these types of prescription drugs are highly addictive, especially after prolonged use or when abused through snorting or injection.
Treatment options may include a combination of medication-assisted treatment (MAT), such as a Suboxone regimen, and psychotherapy. Due to COVID-19, many states are currently allowing doctors to streamline the prescription of buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex) through telehealth assessments and counseling.
Central Nervous System (CNS) Depressants
Understandably, the uncertainty and stress of 2020 has resulted in anxiety and depression for millions, causing a spike in prescriptions for CNS depressants. This type of drug includes barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and sleep aids with brand names such as Valium, Xanax, Nembutal, Luminal, and Ambian. From mid-February to mid-March, a study of 3 million Americans indicated a 34% increase of anti-anxiety medication prescriptions, coinciding with the onset and spread of COVID-19 in the U.S.
Benzodiazepines, such as Ativan, Valium, and Xanax, affects a chemical in the brain called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). This chemical inhibits certain brain signals, creating a sense of calm and inducing drowsiness. While taking a CNS depressant may be beneficial in the short-term, these sedative drugs can become highly addictive after prolonged use, and higher doses may be required to achieve the desired effect. Since these drugs depress the nervous system, combining CNS depressants with opioids or alcohol can also be a life-threatening combination.
Treatment for individuals dependent on CNS depressants will most likely require medically supervised detoxification. Withdrawal symptoms from certain medications in this classification can be severe, and in some cases, deadly. To ensure their safety, individuals should taper off gradually to reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms.
Initially prescribed to treat asthma and obesity, stimulants are now commonly prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, and narcolepsy. This medication type includes dextroamphetamine (ProCentra), methylphenidate (Concerta, Ritalin), and a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine (Adderall). Overall, stimulants are prescribed to increase mental alertness and improve attention, but these drugs aren’t without risks.
Stimulants increase blood pressure, raise heart rates, and narrow blood vessels, which can lead to heart palpitations and arrhythmia, as well as dangerously high blood pressure levels. Most seriously, a stimulant overdose can cause a stroke, psychosis, seizures, and sudden cardiac arrest. In addition, Adderall – the most widely-prescribed stimulant – is classified as a Schedule II controlled substance by the U.S. Controlled Substances Act due to its addictive properties.
Prescription drugs are largely safe when taken as prescribed, but it’s important to understand the inherent risks of abusing these three types of medication. If you or someone you love is addicted to a prescription drug, effective treatment options are readily available – even during these uncertain times.
Talk about Prescriptions and Abuse
As quarantines continue, it’s important to understand how prescription abuse occurs. The best way to raise awareness about the threats of prescription abuse is to talk about prescriptions and how they can be abused. Maintaining your social connections, through virtual or socially distanced means, can be a great way to stave off prescription abuse.