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Medicine LibreTexts

8.3: Prescription Drugs

  • Page ID
    11745
  • Most people take medicines only for the reasons their doctors prescribe them. But an estimated 20 percent of people in the United States have used prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons. This is prescription drug abuse. It is a serious and growing problem.

    Abusing some prescription drugs can lead to addiction. You can develop an addiction to:

    • Narcotic painkillers
    • Sedatives and tranquilizers
    • Stimulants

    Experts don't know exactly why this type of drug abuse is increasing. The availability of drugs is probably one reason. Doctors are prescribing more drugs for more health problems than ever before. Online pharmacies make it easy to get prescription drugs without a prescription, even for younger people.

    Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

    Medications can be effective when they are used properly, but some can be addictive and dangerous when abused. Some prescribed medications that - when used in ways or by people other than prescribed - have the potential for adverse medical consequences, including addiction.

    In 2010, approximately 16 million Americans reported using a prescription drug for nonmedical reasons in the past year; 7 million in the past month. After marijuana, prescription and over-the-counter medications account for most of the commonly abused drugs.

    What types of prescription drugs are abused?

    Three types of drugs are abused most often:

    • Opioids—prescribed for pain relief
    • CNS depressants—barbiturates and benzodiazepines prescribed for anxiety or sleep problems (often referred to as sedatives or tranquilizers)
    • Stimulants—prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the sleep disorder narcolepsy, or obesity.

    How can you help prevent prescription drug abuse?

    • Ask your doctor or pharmacist about your medication, especially if you are unsure about its effects.
    • Keep your doctor informed about all medications you are taking, including over-thecounter medications.
    • Read the information your pharmacist provides before starting to take medications.
    • Take your medication(s) as prescribed.
    • Keep all prescription medications secured at all times and properly dispose of any unused medications.

    Prescription Drug Advertising

    Your healthcare provider is the best source of information about the right medicines for you. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) protects public health by assuring the safety, effectiveness, and security of a wide range of products, including human prescription drugs. We also advance public health by helping people get the accurate, science-based information they need to use medicines appropriately and improve their health. Prescription drug advertisements can provide useful information for consumers to work with their health care providers to make wise decisions about treatment.

    FDA Authority Over Advertising

    The FDA serves the public health and welfare in many ways. One way is overseeing the approval and marketing of prescription drugs. It's authority is based on a number of federal laws, including the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Among other areas, this law specifically addresses prescription drug advertising. This law requires that advertisements for prescription drugs be accurate and not misleading.

    Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising is a relatively new area of prescription drug promotion. No federal law has ever banned DTC advertising. Until the mid-1980s, drug companies gave information about prescription drugs only to doctors and pharmacists. When these professionals thought it appropriate, they gave that information to their patients. However, during the 1980s, some drug companies started to give the general public more direct access to this information through DTC ads.

    The law requires that product claim ads give a "fair balance" of information about drug risks as compared with information about drug benefits. This means that the content and presentation of a drug's most important risks must be reasonably similar to the content and presentation of its benefits.

    This does not mean that equal space must be given to risks and benefits in print ads, or equal time to risks and benefits in broadcast ads. The amount of time or space needed to present risk information will depend on the drug's risks and the way that both the benefits and risks are presented.

    Think about the following questions when you see an ad for a prescription drug. Also, think about asking these questions when you talk to your doctor or pharmacist about a drug.

    • What condition does this drug treat?
    • Why do I think that I might have this condition?
    • If I have the condition, am I part of the population the drug is approved to treat?
    • Should I take this drug if I have a certain condition?
    • Should I take this drug if I am taking certain other drugs?
    • Which of the drug's possible side effects am I concerned about?
    • How will this drug affect other drugs I am taking?
    • Will foods, beverages (alcoholic or non-alcoholic), vitamins, or other supplements affect how this drug works?
    • Are there other drugs that treat my condition?
    • Is there a less costly drug I could use to treat my condition?
    • What else can I do to help deal with my condition? For example, should I exercise or change my diet?
    • Do other drugs for my condition have different side effects?
    • How can I learn more about this condition and this drug?

    Harmful Interactions: Mixing Alcohol with Medicines

    You’ve probably seen this warning on medicines you’ve taken. The danger is real. Mixing alcohol with certain medications can cause nausea and vomiting, headaches, drowsiness, fainting, or loss of coordination. It also can put you at risk for internal bleeding, heart problems, and difficulties in breathing. In addition to these dangers, alcohol can make a medication less effective or even useless, or it may make the medication harmful or toxic to your body. Some medicines that you might never have suspected can react with alcohol, including many medications which can be purchased “over-the-counter”—that is, without a prescription. Even some herbal remedies can have harmful effects when combined with alcohol.

    Medications are safe and effective when used appropriately. Your pharmacist or other health care provider can help you determine which medications interact harmfully with alcohol.

    Did You Know…

    Mixing alcohol and medicines can be harmful. Alcohol, like some medicines, can make you sleepy, drowsy, or lightheaded. Drinking alcohol while taking medicines can intensify these effects. You may have trouble concentrating or performing mechanical skills. Small amounts of alcohol can make it dangerous to drive, and when you mix alcohol with certain medicines you put yourself at even greater risk. Combining alcohol with some medicines can lead to falls and serious injuries, especially among older people.

    Medicines may have many ingredients

    Some medications—including many popular painkillers and cough, cold, and allergy remedies—contain more than one ingredient that can react with alcohol. Read the label on the medication bottle to find out exactly what ingredients a medicine contains. Ask your pharmacist if you have any questions about how alcohol might interact with a drug you are taking.

    Some medicines contain alcohol

    Certain medicines contain up to 10 percent alcohol. Cough syrup and laxatives may have some of the highest alcohol concentrations.

    Alcohol affects women differently

    Women, in general, have a higher risk for problems than men. When a woman drinks, the alcohol in her bloodstream typically reaches a higher level than a man’s even if both are drinking the same amount. This is because women’s bodies generally have less water than men’s bodies. Because alcohol mixes with body water, a given amount of alcohol is more concentrated in a woman’s body than in a man’s. As a result, women are more susceptible to alcohol-related damage to organs such as the liver.

    Older people face greater risk

    Older people are at particularly high risk for harmful alcohol– medication interactions. Aging slows the body’s ability to break down alcohol, so alcohol remains in a person’s system longer. Older people also are more likely to take a medication that interacts with alcohol—in fact, they often need to take more than one of these medications.

    Timing is important

    Alcohol and medicines can interact harmfully even if they are not taken at the same time.

    Remember…

    Mixing alcohol and medicines puts you at risk for dangerous reactions. Protect yourself by avoiding alcohol if you are taking a medication and don’t know its effect. To learn more about a medicine and whether it will interact with alcohol, talk to your pharmacist or other health care provider.