Growing Evidence of Abuse Among Commonly Prescribed Medications — June 2015

Growing Evidence of Abuse Among Commonly Prescribed Medications — June 2015


The potential for abuse of controlled medications like opioid pain reliever OxyContin and the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder drug Ritalin has long been established. But now there is growing evidence that other prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications not typically associated with misuse are being abused. About 6.3 million Americans admit to non-medical use of prescription drugs according the Department of Health and Human Services.

While there are no formal means of reporting abuse of non-controlled medications, a recent study published in the Southern Medical Journal (SMJ) reported on data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), a public system that monitors drug-related emergency room visits and deaths. DAWN data showed that more than 1.2 million emergency room visits involved non-medical use of medications in 2011. For example, ER visits caused by diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in Benadryl) increased by 82 percent from 2004 to 2011. Similarly, the data showed that ER visits for the non-medical use of muscle relaxants increased by 78 percent and psychotherapeutic drugs increased by 48 percent.

There are many different OTC and prescription medications that can induce feelings of relaxation, sedation, increased energy, intoxication, euphoria and/or hallucinations. Medications can be misused or abused in different ways: by using them for non-medical or pleasurable purposes, exceeding the recommended dosage, by combining them with other medications, and by changing the way they are taken (intra-nasally or intravenously instead of orally).

The DAWN data points to the serious health/life risks, and the SMJ study’s authors caution about other potential consequences of abusing medications, including the risk of progressing to abuse of other substances, the expense, and harm to one’s personal, professional and social life.

What is Medication Abuse?

The use of a drug for non-medical or pleasurable purposes to produce results such as relaxation, sedation, increased energy, intoxication, euphoria and/or hallucinations.

Concern About Sleep Aids

Medication AbuseThe rise in abuse of diphenhydramine, muscle relaxants and psychotherapeutic drugs is largely linked to sleep problems, as these medications have sedative effects. However, these drugs don’t cure the underlying cause of insomnia and can worsen the problem in the long run. Besides the risk of drug interactions and other concerns, side effects such as next day drowsiness, confusion and forgetfulness can result from misuse of these medications. Over time, the body can develop a tolerance for any type of sleep aid, requiring higher doses to achieve results. Higher doses can worsen side effects and pose risk of overdose. It is possible to become dependent upon them for sleep and when stopped, insomnia can worsen and withdrawal symptoms (nausea, sweating and shaking) may occur. See box for safer alternatives for promoting sleep.

Kids and the Elderly

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America recently reported that about 4.5 million teens have tried getting high with prescription drugs, and that their abuse of prescription and OTC drugs is equal to or higher than their abuse of cocaine, crack, Ecstasy, methamphetamine and heroin. Cough and cold medications are commonly abused, and when, for example, a whole bottle of cough syrup is consumed, it can cause hallucinations, drowsiness and severe changes in mood, behavior, attitude and emotions.

Many mature adults take their medications as prescribed but some who have trouble with vision or memory may have challenges taking them safely. Pill boxes that separate pills by day, and time of day, can help prevent unintended mistakes.

Keeping Your Home Safe

Experts suggest these ways to keep medications out of the wrong hands (or paws):

  • Buy only medications that are prescribed for medical conditions, and take as directed.
  • Never share medicines with others. They could be dangerous for others.
  • Store medications out of reach of children and pets.
  • Clean out your medicine cabinet regularly, remove identifying information from prescription bottles and dispose of unneeded pills by mixing with coffee grounds or cat litter to make them undesirable. Place in a sealed container to prevent them from leaking out of the garbage. Also, the National Take-Back Initiative offers drop off locations.

Set Up The Day for A Good Night’s Rest

  • Set a regular schedule for sleep (e.g., 10 pm to 6 am).
  • Avoid caffeine after 2 pm.
  • Don’t nap during the day.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Avoid alcohol. It can initially make you sleepy but then cause wakefulness after a few hours.
  • Prepare for sleep 1-2 hours before bedtime. Complete exercise and evening tasks, turn down lights, play soothing music, take a bath, practice yoga or other stress reducing exercises.
  • Consider natural sleep aids such as melatonin and valerian.

If these methods fail to help you sleep, discuss your options with your provider. You may have an underlying health concern that can be treated. If you do take OTC sleep-aids, confirm that they won’t interact with other medications you take.

How to Get Help

Misuse of OTC and prescription medications can lead to serious health concerns and possibly death. If you are facing this challenge, start with your primary care provider to learn more about the root cause of the abuse. S/he may recommend joining a support group and seeing a therapist to support you as you address the issues that trigger your misuse. Please also contact KnovaSolutions for more information and support — call 800/355-0885.

The information contained in this newsletter is for general, educational purposes. It should not be considered a replacement for consultation with your healthcare provider. If you have concerns about your health, please contact your healthcare provider.

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