The recent toxicology report released in regards to the suicide of Mary Kennedy – estranged wife of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – showed that Mary Kennedy had no fewer than three different types of anti-depressants in her system when she took her own life. Even though she had struggled with alcohol addiction in the past, there were no traces of alcohol in her system at the time. Mary Kennedy’s suicide is another wake-up call that prescription medication can carry side effects that are just as dangerous as illicit substances are.
However, unless there are some drastic changes in the pharmaceutical industry, chances are that this type of headline will become far more common. The United States is heavily medicated and the abuse of prescription medication is spiraling out of control. We can do little to prevent physicians and psychiatrists from prescribing certain types of medication. Never the less, we can educate ourselves on the different types of prescription drugs.
The Classes Of Prescription Drugs
Before you can understand how prescription drugs work or why they may be dangerous, it is important to understand the difference in the classifications. Prescription drugs are primarily classified by chemical type, active ingredient, mode of action in the body or type. It is possible for a drug to belong to more than one class and many of those classes have several groups or subclasses. The one common factor behind prescription medication is that they were all intended for the cure, prevention, treatment or diagnosis of a disease, symptom, disorder or illness.
When looking at the classification system for prescription drugs, it appears very complex. Even though it is not necessary to know all the classes and how they work, it can be beneficial to know how these systems are set up; they include:
- Body or organ system affected
- Mode or route of administration
- Chemical properties
- Therapeutic effect on the body
The only reason to have an interest in this information is when you are taking more than one type of prescription medication or if you drink alcohol and/or use illicit substances. It is important to know how certain drugs may interact with one another.
The Abuse Of Prescription Medication
Because of their chemical effects, there are three commonly abused classes of medication. These include central nervous system depressants (prescribed for sleep disorders and anxiety), stimulants (prescribed to treat attention deficit disorder, anxiety, sleep disorders) and opioids (which are prescribed to relieve pain).
Stimulants – As the very name suggests, these often increase energy, attention, alertness, and drastically increase respiration, heart rate and blood pressure. The use of these stimulants release neurotransmitters (norepinephrine and dopamine). Both of these neurotransmitters stimulate the pleasure and reward center of the brain, one of the reasons people are likely to start abusing the drug. People want to avoid the depletion of neurotransmitters in the brain and want to feel good when they have extra norepinephrine and dopamine available. The abuse of these types of drugs can cause withdrawal symptoms, intense drug cravings and energy depletion. It may even cause psychosis, violence, aggression, insomnia, restlessness, irritability and paranoia.
Depressants – Central nervous system (CNS) depressants may also be referred to as tranquilizers or sedatives. Because they slow down brain activity, they are used in the treatment of sleep disorders and anxiety. These include general anesthetics, benzodiazepines and barbiturates. Because CNS depressants slow down the activity of the brain, if a person stops taking them, it can have devastating results. These may include harmful consequences such as seizures. While withdrawal from benzodiazepines is difficult, painful and problematic, there may be life-threatening complications if someone withdraws after having used barbiturates for a long time. Alcohol is a powerful central nervous system depressant and should be avoided when already taking CNS depressants; the same goes for mixing this type of medication with opioids because the consequences may be severe, possibly even life threatening.
Opioids – Opioids are amongst the oldest class of medication and often prescribed for pain-relieving or analgesic properties. The most commonly prescribed opioids are oxycodone, codeine and morphine. Every drug used in the opioid class affects both the body and brain by attaching to the opioid receptors in the gastrointestinal tract, spinal cord and brain. Because they affect the body in such a way, addiction can form quickly and be very intense. Side effects include constipation, nausea and drowsiness. Excessive use or an overdose may lead to decreased respiration, a potentially fatal effect.
The Dangers Of Prescription Medication
The abuse of prescription medication is on the rise in the United States and has been for some time. In fact, the number of deaths because of prescription medication abuse has surpassed the number of deaths because of heroin or cocaine abuse. The perception (combined with widespread availability) is the main culprit. Someone is much more likely to take a half tab of Oxycodone from a friend to ‘relax’ and have a good time than they would be to snort heroin, even though the dangers are comparable.
While it is true that prescriptions are out of control and we need stricter regulations when it comes to how easily these prescription drugs are handed out; that is not within our control. What is within our control is education, understanding why certain prescription drugs are dangerous and why this is not like buying something over the counter.
The danger with the abuse of these types of prescription drugs is that many people fail to realize that just because these are given to patients for medical reasons; it does not mean that they are safe for everyone to take. It should be clear that prescription medication comes with a risk. Even when a physician actually prescribes them for you; after considering your medical history, height, weight and other information, the only thing you need to do is read the long list of warnings you receive with every prescription you get. When someone abuses a prescription drug without understanding how it may interact with other things they are taking, the results may be fatal.