Abusing prescription drugs can cause a number of problems. Prescription drugs can be especially dangerous — and even lead to death — when taken in high doses, when combined with other prescription drugs or certain over-the-counter medications, or when taken with alcohol or illegal drugs.

Medical consequences

Here are examples of serious consequences of prescription drug abuse:

  • Opioids can cause low blood pressure, a slowed breathing rate and potential for breathing to stop, or a coma. Overdose has a significant risk of death.
  • Sedatives and anti-anxiety medications can cause memory problems, low blood pressure and slowed breathing. Overdose can cause coma or death. Abruptly stopping the medication may cause withdrawal symptoms that can include nervous system hyperactivity and seizures.
  • Stimulants can cause dangerously high body temperature, heart problems, high blood pressure, seizures or tremors, hallucinations, aggressiveness, and paranoia.

Physical dependence and addiction

Because commonly abused prescription drugs activate the brain's reward center, it's possible to develop physical dependence and addiction.

  • Physical dependence. Physical dependence (also called tolerance) is the body's response to long-term use. People who are physically dependent on a drug may need higher doses to get the same effects and may experience withdrawal symptoms when cutting back or abruptly stopping the drug. Physical dependence may also become evident if a drug the body becomes adjusted to over time, even without dosage change, is stopped abruptly.
  • Addiction. People who are addicted to a drug can have physical dependence, but they also compulsively seek a drug and continue to use it even when that drug makes their lives worse.

Other consequences

Other potential consequences include:

  • Engaging in risky behaviors because of poor judgment
  • Using illegal drugs
  • Being involved in crime
  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Decreased academic or work performance
  • Troubled relationships
Sept. 19, 2015