The misuse of prescription drugs is endemic in the US. A 2014 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicated that about 15 million people aged 12 or older used prescription drugs non-medically in the previous year. It also found that as many as 6.5 million people did so in a month.

But the US is not alone. A paper, published in the journal BMC Psychiatry in 2016 and based on a survey of over 20,000 people across Europe, suggested almost one in 10 aged 18 or older admitted to a lifetime pattern of stimulant abuse.

The highly respected, UK-based New Scientist magazine called the problem a ‘Public Health disaster.’

Should it be called the same in North America? Put simply, yes. SAMHSA’s research also highlighted the fact that nearly one in five teenagers have used prescription drugs to get high. Pain relief, stimulant and tranquilizing drugs were most commonly used for this purpose.

What is prescription drug abuse?

Prescription drug abuse is the use – either intentionally or by accident – of prescription medications for purposes other than those prescribed. This includes taking someone else’s prescription medications to relieve pain, for instance, increasing the dose of prescribed medications without a doctor’s consent and the use of medications as an alternative to illegal drugs.

All three types of misuse can cause serious complications – falls and fractures in older adults, for example. This behavior can also lead to injection drug use with the resulting risk of infections such as hepatitis C and HIV. Sadly, consequences also include overdose and death. Furthermore, long term abuse can lead to addiction and alteration of brain function.

The day to day reality behind the numbers

To put the problem another way, prescription drugs are misused and abused more often than any other substance, except marijuana and alcohol. Little wonder then, that the sale of prescription drugs – such as opioid analgesics (pain relief drugs) – increased nearly four-fold between 1999 and 2010. Not surprisingly, there was an almost four-fold increase in opioid overdose deaths and substance abuse treatment admissions during that time.

Part of the issue of prescription drug abuse is availability. They are simply easier to get hold of than the illegal alternatives. In addition, many believe they are not dangerous.

But not only is prescription drug abuse always harmful but, according to the US Department of Justice, it’s illegal.

Would you know if someone was abusing prescription drugs?

If you’re worried about a spouse, sibling, parent, child, friend or colleague look out for these signs:

*drowsiness – abusers start falling asleep at inappropriate times

*sleep – habits can change from non-existent to prolonged

*hygiene – what was once important, like showering, stops being so

*flu-like symptoms – nausea, fever and headaches can become common

*weight loss – metabolic changes can cause this

*energy levels – lethargy sets in, activity becomes curtailed

*decreased libido – caused by lower testosterone and estrogen levels

*old habits – the person may, for example, begin smoking again

*relationships – friendships that were once important may fall away

*theft – missing items may be pawned to pay for a habit

*finances – habit expenditure leads to unexplained overspending, debts or borrowings

*reliability – attendance at education, work or family gatherings suffers.

It’s a troublesome but treatable problem

If you – or someone you care about – has an issue with prescription drug abuse, seek medical advice immediately. It’s not easy to admit to having this kind of problem. However, as the numbers above indicate, you’re not alone. And the problem is a lot easier to deal with sooner rather than later.