The dangers of prescription drugs

The dangers of prescription drugs

When most people speak of drug use and drug addiction, they are usually referring to illegal narcotics such as methamphetamines, heroin and cocaine. Yes, these are rightfully villainised as dangerous and detrimental to health and general well-being, but many drug addicts are in fact addicted to prescription meds; and the problem is bigger than you think. 

The most common addiction to prescription medications is to pain meds. With prolonged usage, patients can become addicted to opioid-based painkillers such as Vicodin, morphine and OxyContin (its active ingredient is Oxycodone). 

The danger for addiction is high because unlike illegal drugs, these are easily accessible. Also, you can get addicted by accident. People who have been injured, or experienced severe trauma, have no choice but use certain medications in large doses, and that puts them at risk of dependency. 


Opioids, which come from the opium plant, are also the basis for certain illegal drugs, such as heroin, explains Drug Abuse. Painkillers of this type aren’t always addictive, though. There are various factors that lead to pill addiction. Also, when these types of drugs are taken properly, under guidance of a registered physician, they will most likely not cause many side effects and are usually manageable.

How do I know I am addicted to these opioids?

It is important to be candid with yourself and your doctor, and answer a few questions to determine whether you have become addicted to your prescription. 

Consider the pain you are treating, compared to the amount of pills you are taking; are you overdosing? Has the pain lessened since you started the treatment? Do you take the medicine regardless of whether you are in pain or not?

Other questions include the side effects of the particular drug;  “Am I experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as shakes, chills, headaches or nausea when I haven’t taken the medication at the normal time? “Am I using more of the medication over time to feel the same effects?

If you take painkillers when you aren’t in pain, it could be a psychological response to the fact that your body feels you might be in pain soon. You are subconsciously preparing for pain that might not actually occur. This is problematic, as you are taking a dose of the addictive medicine and increasing your tolerance for it. Next time, when you are actually in pain, you may need to take a higher dosage to get the same pain-relieving effect. Of course, this fuels the addiction and increases the possibility of becoming addicted.  

How dangerous are prescription drugs?

There is a misconception that because these prescription drugs are legal, they do not have the capacity to be fatal. However, used in excess, any substance can be harmful. This is why you have to stick to your prescription dose and timing. 

Hopkins explains that prescription drugs are only safe for people who actually have prescriptions for them. That is because a licensed doctor has examined them and decided that it was the best course of treatment to be prescribed – the proper dose of medication for their patient’s specific medical condition. The doctor has also told them exactly how they should take the medicine, including things to avoid while taking the drug — such as drinking alcohol, smoking or taking other medications. They are also aware of potentially dangerous side effects and can monitor patients closely for these.

Over-the-Counter Drugs can also be addictive

Just because a drug doesn’t need a prescription, doesn’t mean it can’t make you high or be addictive. Drugs do have different schedules, depending on how powerful they are, but there are some over-the-counter cough mixtures that are notorious for being abused and are used as a replacement for alcohol and other narcotics. Dextromethorphan (DXM) is found in some OTC cough medicines. DXM can lead to confusion, stomach pain, numbness and even hallucinations.

What does the law say about prescription drugs?

In South Africa, prescription drugs are controlled by a scheduling system. Medication schedules determine the ease of access and availability of the specific drug, and within the medicinal community, nine schedules are used in South Africa.

Schedule 1 is for over-the-counter medication, while the restrictions go up to schedule 8, for even stricter controlled substances, usually only dispensed to hospitals and physicians. According to Essentials, medicine with a high scheduling status (usually schedule 5 and above) is treated differently because of its habit-forming nature and potential harmful side effects — pharmacists keep a record of all sales, and repeat prescriptions are limited or not given and need to be renewed.

Drug addiction can lead to overdose, which is a medical emergency. If you think you or a friend may be in trouble, use the iER app to get the assistance you need. 

Signs of an overdose include nausea, pain in the chest, head or eyes, dry mouth or foaming of the mouth. Some people experience excessive vomiting and even nosebleeds. If your friend loses consciousness after using, he or she may have accidentally taken too much of the substance and needs assistance as soon as possible. 

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