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Prescription Drug Misuse FAQs

Why do people misuse prescription drugs?

The reasons for the high prevalence of prescription drug misuse vary by age, gender, and other factors, but likely include ease of access. The number of prescriptions for some of these medications has increased dramatically since the early 1990s. Moreover, misinformation about the addictive properties of prescription opioids and the perception that prescription drugs are less harmful than illicit drugs are other possible contributors to the problem. Although misuse of prescription drugs affects many Americans, certain populations such as youth and older adults may be at particular risk.

Who is at risk?

While anyone can misuse prescription drugs, it’s important to recognize unique risk factors for certain populations and to consider the specific issues facing Connecticut residents.

Adolescents

Youth who misuse prescription medications are also more likely to report use of other drugs. Multiple studies have revealed associations between prescription drug misuse and higher rates of cigarette smoking; heavy episodic drinking; and marijuana, cocaine, and other illicit drug use among U.S. adolescents, young adults, and college students. In the case of prescription opioids, receiving a legitimate prescription for these drugs during adolescence is also associated with a greater risk of future opioid misuse, particularly in young adults who have little to no history of drug use.

Older Adults

More than 80 percent of older patients (ages 57 to 85 years) use at least one prescription medication on a daily basis, with more than 50 percent taking more than five medications or supplements daily. This can potentially lead to health issues resulting from unintentionally using a prescription medication in a manner other than how it was prescribed, or from intentional nonmedical use. The high rates of multiple (comorbid) chronic illnesses in older populations, age-related changes in drug metabolism, and the potential for drug interactions make medication (and other substance) misuse more dangerous in older people than in younger populations. Further, a large percentage of older adults also use over-the-counter medicines and dietary and herbal supplements, which could compound any adverse health consequences resulting from nonmedical use of prescription drugs.

Is it safe to use prescription drugs in combination with other medications?

Using multiple substances at the same time is know as polysubstance use. The majority of overdose deaths in Connecticut are polysubstance related. Because it’s difficult to determine exactly how different substances will interact with one another and the individual taking them, polysubstance use can be extremely dangerous and even lethal.

The safety of using prescription drugs in combination with other substances depends on a number of factors including the types of medications, dosages, other substance use (e.g., alcohol), and individual patient health factors. Patients should talk with their health care provider about whether they can safely use their prescription drugs with other substances, including prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications, as well as alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs.

Specifically, drugs that slow down breathing rate, such as opioids, alcohol, antihistamines, CNS depressants, or general anesthetics, should not be taken together because these combinations increase the risk of life threatening respiratory depression. Stimulants should also not be used with other medications unless recommended by a physician. Patients should be aware of the dangers associated with mixing stimulants and OTC cold medicines that contain decongestants, as combining these substances may cause blood pressure to become dangerously high or lead to irregular heart rhythms.

Are prescription drugs safe to take when pregnant?

Some prescription medications taken by a pregnant woman can cause her baby to develop dependence, which can result in withdrawal symptoms after birth, known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). This can require a prolonged stay in neonatal intensive care and, in the case of opioids, treatment with medication. Women should consult with their doctors to determine which medications they can continue taking during pregnancy.

Opioid pain medications require particular attention; rising rates of NAS have been associated with increases in the prescription of opioids for pain in pregnant women. NAS associated with opioid use (heroin or prescription opioids) increased fivefold from 2000 to 2012, with a higher rate of increase in more recent years.

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