Drug Abuse: Prescribed Pain Medicines and Sedatives

Even medicines that are prescribed for pain or sedation have the potential to be harmful. These medicines may be legal, but they can still cause problems. Taking them too often (called overuse) may lead to addiction or dependence. It's also dangerous to use these medicines differently from how your healthcare provider has instructed. And simply having these types of prescription medicines in your home can be risky. That's because someone else may also try to use them. For instance, many heroin users report using or misusing prescription opioids before they started using heroin.

Physical dependence leads to drug withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking the drug. With psychological addiction, you feel a strong craving for the drug. You may be unable to stop using the medicine even though you want to stop. These problems can happen even when the medicine is taken at the prescribed dose. This is especially true if you take these medicines for a long time. 

Drug addiction places you, your family, and your job at risk. You could be arrested, convicted, and sentenced to jail. You have a higher chance of accidental injuries to yourself or others while under the influence of the drug. Death from an unintended overdose is one of the greatest risks.

Health problems

Many possible health problems are linked to drug abuse. Different medicines have different risks. Medicines can cause problems even if you have no history of health problems. Some problems are affected by the other medicines you may be taking or a chronic illness you may have. Some are directly related to the drugs, and others from addiction or dependency. Here are some risks:

  • Drowsiness or sleeping for long periods

  • Anxiety

  • Trouble thinking and problem solving

  • Seizures

  • Blood pressure problems

  • Depression

  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)

  • Nausea, vomiting, and stomach problems

  • Slurred speech

  • Trouble breathing

  • Dizziness

  • Skin infections

  • Muscle pain and spasms

  • Strokes, heart attacks, and kidney failure

  • HIV infection. You're at much greater risk if you use IV (intravenous) drugs.

  • Other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as herpes, chlamydia, or gonorrhea

  • Severe and fatal infection of the heart valves if you use IV drugs

  • Coma and death 

Get care

The following steps can help you:

  • Admit to yourself and your family and close friends that you have a drug problem. Ask your family to help you deal with the problem.

  • Tell your healthcare providers about this problem. They can help you by adjusting the type and amount of medicines that they give you in the future. It's best to get all prescriptions for addictive medicines from a single provider who can check what's being prescribed. Don't be ashamed to do this. Providers hear this often. They're generally relieved that the person is being pro-active about the drug issue and their health.

  • Ask your provider for a referral for professional help. This could be 1-on-1 talk therapy (counseling), family therapy, or a drug treatment program. The treatment program can be outpatient, which means you go home each day. Or you may stay day and night in the facility for treatment (residential).

  • Join a self-help group for drug abuse.

  • Stay away from friends who abuse drugs or tempt you to keep abusing drugs.

  • Don't combine pain medicines and sedatives together or with alcohol. This can cause oversedation or coma. It can stop your breathing.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised.

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur:

  • Seizure

  • Hard time breathing or slow, irregular breathing

  • Chest pain

  • Sudden weakness on 1 side of your body or sudden trouble speaking

  • Very drowsy or trouble waking up

  • Fainting or not being awake and aware (loss of consciousness)

  • Fast heart rate

  • Very slow heart rate

When to get medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur: 

  • Agitation, anxiety, or unable to sleep

  • Unintended weight loss

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider

  • Cough with colored sputum

To learn more

Find more information with these resources:

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