One fairly common misconception is that recreational use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs is safer than use of illegal drugs. However, they can be highly addictive and put users at risk for overdosing.

“When over the counter or prescription medications are taken in higher-than-recommended doses or when the user isn’t experiencing any symptoms, they can cause damage just as much as illegal drugs,” said Nadine Chaundy, BS, addiction counselor at Geisinger’s Marworth Treatment Center in Waverly.

Some of the more commonly abused prescription medications include opioids, such as oxycodone and Vicodin; anti-anxiety medications and sedatives, such as Xanax and Valium; and stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall.

If someone you know is abusing opioids, you may notice at least a few of these symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Poor coordination
  • Nausea
  • Slower breathing rate
  • They act as if they have a euphoric high

An abuser of anti-anxiety medications or sedatives might suffer from:

  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Unsteady walking
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Memory lapses
  • Slower breathing 

And those who are abusing stimulants might experience:

  • Diminished appetite
  • Irritability
  • High blood pressure
  • High body temperature
  • Insomnia
  • Paranoia
  • Anxiety
  • Irregular heartbeat

You should also look out for harmful behaviors that a person abusing prescription medication might display, such as forging signatures on checks or stealing prescription medication, claiming to lose prescriptions as an excuse to get another prescription filled out, and trying to get prescriptions from multiple doctors.

“Also, if you have kids, keep in mind that many teens who abuse prescription medication get them for free from someone they know,” said Chaundy. “If you have medications in your home, it is recommended that you keep them locked in a safe place and dispose of them as soon as you are no longer using them.”

The most commonly abused over the counter drugs are usually cough and cold medicines that contain dextromethorphan (DXM). Abusing this type of medication can adversely affect your vision and cause lack in judgment.

Other commonly abused over the counter drugs include diet pills, diuretics, laxatives and similar types of weight-loss products; many of them contain ephedrine, a dangerous stimulant.

“Abusing these kinds of over the counter weight loss drugs can lead to symptoms including hair loss, menstrual cycle disruptions, urinary tract infections, diarrhea and anxiety,” said Chaundy.

Recovering from prescription and over the counter drug addictions can be a long process involving medication and counseling sessions. Buprenorphine (brand name Suboxone®) is a commonly used medication that assists in the detoxification process by mitigating withdrawal symptoms. To help maintain sobriety from opiates, naltrexone (brand name Vivitrol®) is often used as medication-assisted treatment because it can help reduce urges and lessen withdrawal symptoms.

“Withdrawal from prescription or over the counter drugs can be an arduous process. Some of the symptoms patients experience are actually the same as the symptoms they get from using the drugs,” said Chaundy.