Prescription Drugs

Prescription medication is second only to marijuana for abused drugs in the nation, and abuse remains near its peak prevalence among college students. The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that there were approximately 2,567,000 new nonmedical users of psychotherapeutics across the United States during 2009. Despite the risk of accidental prescription drug overdose, many students mistakenly believe abusing prescription drugs is not harmful; because prescription drugs are legal substances created in carefully regulated labs and prescribed by doctors, some students think they are safe to take without medical supervision.

Abuse

According to data from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, during 2009, 6.3 percent of college students reported nonmedical use of psychotherapeutics in the past month. Generally, students swallow the pills whole. However, they can also chew them or inject or snort the crushed pill in powder form to achieve a quicker high. Combining these drugs with alcohol can lead to dangerous side effects. Students have easy access to prescription drugs. For example, they might fake a medical condition to get a prescription from a doctor or buy the drugs from online pharmacies that do not require prescriptions. Overwhelmingly, students are given or steal prescription drugs from someone they know: family members, friends, or acquaintances with valid prescriptions.

Consequences

All prescription drugs have side effects that can only be managed by a doctor. The risk of adverse consequences increases when prescription drugs are taken with alcohol and other drugs. Those who take painkillers or central nervous system (CNS) depressants for long periods of time develop a tolerance to the drugs, leading to increased frequency of use and the need to take larger doses to achieve a high. Students who stop taking painkillers or CNS depressants can experience withdrawal. Withdrawal from CNS depressants can cause life-threatening consequences. Those who take large doses of prescription painkillers or CNS depressants or mix them with other substances, such as alcohol, risk respiratory depression and death. Stimulants are not physically addictive, but can lead to psychological dependence. Students who begin using higher doses are at risk of paranoia, hostility, high body temperature, heart failure, seizures, and death.

Effective Prevention

It is important to note that many students do have valid medical reasons for taking prescription painkillers, CNS depressants, and stimulants, so prevention efforts should not stigmatize such drugs. Rather, efforts should focus on minimizing the risk for abuse.

Limiting access is the most effective way to prevent prescription drug abuse on campus. Medical staff should:

  • Be selective about prescribing painkillers, CNS depressants, and stimulants.
  • Be on the lookout for students who suddenly develop symptoms of a disorder that requires these drugs for treatment, students who ask for these drugs by name, and those who frequently 'lose' drugs and need additional prescriptions or higher doses.
  • Work with students' primary care physicians to confirm diagnoses that require treatment by these drugs.

Finally, campus administrators can block access to online pharmacies from campus computers.

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