Friends, Colleagues, and Parents:
Prescription drug abuse is an emerging problem in our country, and one that
is showing an increasing trend. What is most disturbing about this trend is that
teenagers and young adults are counted among those who use these drugs
nonmedically-which include prescription pain relievers, stimulants, sedatives,
According to the National Institute on
Drug Abuse's (NIDA's) 2004 Monitoring
the Future survey, 9.3 percent of
12th-graders reported using Vicodin without a prescription in the past year, and
5.0 percent reported using OxyContin. Another recent survey reports that approximately
48 million people-about 20 percent of the U.S. population-aged 12 or
older had used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons in their lifetimes.
Elderly persons are particularly vulnerable to prescription drug abuse and misuse;
as a group, they are prescribed more medications than their younger counterparts,
placing them at higher risk for misuse, dependence, and addiction.
Accessibility to the drugs is likely a contributing factor to this growing trend.
More people are being prescribed medications today, for a variety of health
reasons. This increase in prescriptions means more pills in our medicine cabinets.
To add to this supply, many people also are obtaining medications illegally
through Web sites that do not require a physician's prescription. While most
online pharmacies are lawful businesses providing an important healthcare
service, others, however, are not. In fact, some sites provide medications without
proper identity verification.
Prescription drugs can have great medical benefits when taken under the supervision
of a physician. However, their inappropriate use can lead to addiction.
As a physician, I want to raise awareness in the healthcare community about the
potential for prescription drug abuse. I also want to ask caretakers to safeguard
their prescribed medications so that young people in their households do not have
easy access to them.
NIDA is continuing to invest resources in researching this topic. We currently
are testing medications for the treatment of prescription opioid abuse through our
Clinical Trials Network. For more information on prescription drug abuse, as well
as other drugs of abuse, please visit the NIDA Web site, www.drugabuse.gov,
or call the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information at
Nora D. Volkow, M.D.
What is prescription drug abuse?
Although most people take prescription medications responsibly,
there has been an increase in the nonmedical use or, as
NIDA refers to it in this report, abuse of prescription drugs
in the United States.
What are the concerns?
A number of published reports indicate that prescription drug
abuse is on the rise in the United States. According to the
2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 6.3 million
Americans aged 12 and older have used prescription medications
for nonmedical purposes in the prior 30 days.
An estimated -
The number of new nonmedical users of pain relievers
increased drastically-from 573,000 in 1990 to 2.5 million
in 2000. Overall, men and women have roughly similar
rates of nonmedical use of prescription drugs (an exception
is found among 12-17-year-olds, with more females likely
to abuse these drugs).
- 4.7 million used pain relievers
- 1.8 million used tranquilizers
- 1.2 million used stimulants
- 0.3 million used sedatives
The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), which
monitors drug mentions (medications and drugs of abuse)
from emergency departments (EDs) across the Nation,
recently reported that two of the most frequently mentioned
prescription medications in drug abuse-related cases are
benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, and
Ativan) and opioid pain relievers (e.g., oxycodone, hydrocodone,
morphine, methadone, and combinations that
include these drugs). In 2002, benzodiazepines accounted
for 100,784 ED visits categorized as drug abuse-related
cases and opioid pain relievers accounted for more than
119,000. Between 1994 and 2002, ED reports of hydrocodone
and oxycodone overdoses increased by 170 percent
and 450 percent, respectively. While ED visits attributed to
drug addiction have been increasing, suicide-related visits
have remained stable since 1995.
What types of prescription medications
are commonly abused?
Several classes of medications that are commonly abused
include opioids, central nervous system (CNS) depressants,
and stimulants. Certain over-the-counter (OTC) medicines
can also be abused when not taken as directed. It is important
to note that many prescription drugs or OTC medications
can produce dangerous health effects when taken concurrently
or taken with alcohol.
- Opioids. Opioids are commonly prescribed to treat pain.
Examples of prescription opioids include morphine
(Kadian, Avinza), codeine, oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin,
Percodan, Percocet), hydrocodone (Lortab, Lorcet,
Vicodin), propoxyphene (Darvon), fentanyl (Duragesic),
and hydromorphone (Dilaudid). Opioids work in the
brain to diminish the perception of pain. Opioids also can
produce a sense of euphoria by affecting pleasure centers
in the brain. This is often intensified when opioids are
taken by routes other than those prescribed.1 For example,
OxyContin can be crushed and snorted, or injected
intravenously-this can enhance the euphoric effects,
while at the same time increasing the risk for serious
medical consequences, such as overdose.
- CNS Depressants. CNS depressants commonly are
prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorders because
of their ability to slow normal brain function. These
medications include barbiturates, such as mephobarbital
(Mebaral), pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal), butalbital
(Fioricet), and benzodiazepines such as diazepam
(Valium), chlordiazepoxide HCl (Librium), alprazolam
(Xanax), triazolam (Halcion), and others.
- Stimulants. Stimulants, including dextroamphetamine
(Dexedrine and Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin
and Concerta), are used primarily to treat attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder, attention deficit disorder, and
narcolepsy. These stimulants increase the amount of
certain chemicals in the brain and peripheral nervous
system. This can lead to increased blood pressure and
heart rate, and increased blood glucose.
Who is most vulnerable?
- Adolescents. According to the 2003 National Survey
on Drug Use and Health, 9.2 percent of youth aged
12-17 had used a prescription psychotherapeutic drug
for nonmedical reasons in the past year and 4.0 percent
were current users. Prescription opioids are a particularly
serious problem in this age group. NIDA's 2004
Monitoring the Future survey of 8th-, 10th-, and 12thgraders
found that 5.0 percent of 12th-graders reported
abusing OxyContin in the past year, and 9.3 percent
reported abusing Vicodin, making Vicodin one of the
most commonly abused prescription drugs in this population.
Another troubling trend is the recent phenomena
known as "pharming," where young people mix prescription
medications and ingest some or all of them at once,
unaware of potentially severe drug interactions.
- Elderly Adults. Although persons 65 years of age and
above comprise only 13 percent of the population, they are
prescribed approximately one-third of all medications in
the United States. In addition, older patients are likely to
be prescribed more long-term prescriptions, as well as
multiple prescriptions, which could potentially result in
unintentional misuse. A large percentage of older adults
also use OTC medicines and dietary supplements, along
with prescription medications, which could lead to dangerous
results. The elderly also are at risk for prescription
drug abuse, in which they intentionally take medications
that are not medically necessary. Because of high rates
of comorbid illnesses among the elderly, changes in drug
metabolism with age, and the potential for drug interactions,
prescription and OTC drug abuse or misuse can have
more adverse health consequences among this age group.
What can we do?
Healthcare providers, primary care physicians, pharmacists,
and patients themselves, can all play a role in identifying
and preventing prescription drug abuse.
Physicians. Because most people visit their primary care
physician at least once every 2 years, primary care physicians
are in a unique position?not only to prescribe medications,
but to identify prescription drug abuse and help the patient
find treatment. Screening for prescription drug abuse should
be incorporated into every routine medical visit. Doctors
can begin by asking questions about substance abuse history,
current prescription and OTC use, and reasons for use.
Further, doctors should also be aware of other potential
signs of abuse, such as rapid increases in the amount of
medication the patient reportedly needs, or refill requests
before the refill date.
Pharmacists. It is a pharmacist's responsibility to provide
clear information on how to take medications appropriately,
describe possible effects, and warn of possible drug interactions.
The pharmacist also can be part of the first line of
defense in recognizing prescription drug abuse. By monitoring
prescriptions for falsification or alterations and being
aware of potential "doctor shopping" (where patients get
multiple prescriptions from different doctors), pharmacists
play a valuable role in prevention.
Patients. There are also steps a patient can take to ensure
the appropriate use of prescription medications. Patients
should always follow the directions, be aware of potential
interactions, never stop or change a dose on their own, and
never take another person's prescription. Patients should
also inform their healthcare professionals about current
prescription and OTC medicines they are taking, along with
any dietary or herbal supplements they might be taking.
What are the treatments
for prescription drug abuse?
Years of research have shown that addiction to any drug,
illicit or prescribed, like other chronic diseases, can be
treated effectively. However, no single type of treatment
is appropriate for all individuals with addictions. To be
successful, treatment must take into account the type of
drug used as well as the needs of the user. Treatment may
incorporate several behavioral and pharmacological components,
as well as detoxification. Because drug abuse is a
chronic and relapsing disease, multiple courses of treatment
may be needed for patients to make a full recovery.
There are two main categories of drug addiction treatment-
behavioral and pharmacological.
Behavioral drug abuse treatments?such as individual
counseling, group or family counseling, contingency management,
and cognitive-behavioral therapy-teach patients
how to stop using drugs, how to handle cravings, how to
prevent a relapse, and how to handle a relapse if one should
occur. When delivered effectively, behavioral treatments
also can help patients improve their personal relationships
and ability to function at work and within the community.
Some addictions, such as opioid addiction, can be treated
with medications. Methadone and buprenorphine currently
are used to treat heroin addiction, but they also may prove
useful in treating addiction to pain relievers. Further research
is needed to determine whether these medications will
provide an effective treatment for prescription drug abuse.
Research shows that a combination of both behavioral and pharmacological treatments is the
most effective strategy, especially for treating opioid addiction.
What are some of the problems with prescribing pain medications?
There is a fine balance between under-prescribing and over-prescribing pain relievers,
The data available to us so far suggests that the risk of becoming addicted to prescription pain
medication is minimal in those who are treated on a short-term basis. The risk for patients with
chronic pain is less well understood. Some studies have shown that those most vulnerable to
becoming addicted to prescription pain medications have a history of psychological disorders,
prior substance abuse problems, or a family history of these disorders.
Pain management for patients who have substance abuse disorders is particularly challenging
for the medical profession. However, these patients still can be successfully treated with opioid
pain medications; they may need to be admitted to a treatment or recovery program and
monitored closely if prescribed controlled substances for pain.
Developing effective treatments for addiction and pain medications that are less likely to be
abused is a priority for NIDA. For example, the medication buprenorphine/naloxone (marketed
as Suboxone), developed by NIDA in collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry for the
treatment of opioid addiction, may provide an alternative treatment for pain that has less potential
for abuse than other pain medications. However, further research is needed before this practice can
* This does not apply only to opioids. Changes in routes of administration also contribute
to the abuse of other prescription medications, and this practice can lead to serious medical
These publications may be reprinted without permission.
NIDA Community Alert Bulletin on Prescription Drugs was published in September, 2005