Prescription drug abuse: A neglected medical condition

“Prescription drug abuse” is another term for when people use prescription medicines in ways that are different from how they were meant to be taken.

Medically, this type of drug use is termed as “abuse” when it has a bad impact on other parts of a person’s life. For example, when using the drug too much, it causes the person to miss work or school, or to have problems getting along with friends or family.

People, who abuse prescription drugs might take drugs that are not prescribed to them, or take more of the drug than what the label says, or even crush pills and inhale them, or inject them into a vein instead of swallowing them as directed. 

The types of prescription drugs that people abuse most often are certain drugs to treat severe pain (called “opioids”), drugs that make one to feel alert and focused (called “stimulants”) or drugs that make one to feel calm, relaxed, or possibly sleepy (called “anxiolytics”). 

People who abuse prescription drugs might tell their medical practitioner that they need more medicine than they actually do. That way, they can get more of the drug they are abusing. They might also try to get the same prescription medicine from more than one doctor. In some settings, one can order for drugs on the Internet, too. Most people who abuse prescription drugs get them from a friend or relative, not a doctor.

Prescription drug abuse is common among teenagers. Often, teens take drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinet. Other times, they get the drugs from other teens.

If one is worried that they might have a problem with drugs, they can talk to a doctor or nurse, or to a mental health counsellor who can recommend treatment to help overcome the problem.

If you think someone close to you is abusing prescription drugs, ask them if they are taking medicines differently from how they are meant to be taken. If they are, encourage them to speak to the doctor who prescribed the drugs. If you think your child is abusing prescription drugs, talk to his or her doctor.

The main treatment for prescription drug abuse is counselling. In counselling, you can talk with a doctor or other specialists about how to stop abusing drugs.

Treatment can include prescription medicines that make it easier to stop abusing drugs. Medicines like these are available only for some types of drug abuse.

Support groups can help one in striving to quit prescription drug abuse. In support groups, people talk about their drug use experiences and share advice on how they managed to quit.

It is important to know that when people take drugs for a long time and suddenly stop, they often get symptoms. These symptoms are called “withdrawal,” and might include; feeling anxious or restless, trouble sleeping, vomiting or diarrhoea. 

If one experiences any of these symptoms after stopping a drug, they will need to talk to their doctor or nurse. He or she can prescribe medicines to treat these symptoms or suggest ways to help one cope.

To reduce the chances of developing this prescription drug abuse, tell your doctor about all the medicines you take (including over-the-counter medicines), take medicine only as prescribed, read the instructions from the pharmacist before taking your medicine, ask your doctor or pharmacist about your medicine if you are unsure about how it will affect you and once your health problem is better and the prescribed days are over, throw away any left-over pills that were prescribed to treat the problem.

Dr. Ian Shyaka
Resident in Surgery, Rwanda Military Hospital,


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