About problematic prescription drug use

Learn about problematic prescription drug use and how to prevent it.

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About problematic prescription drug use

Intentionally taking medication that hasn't been prescribed to you, to get high or change your mood, is problematic prescription drug use.

The most common types of prescription drugs that can lead to problematic use include:

  • opioids, which can be prescribed to treat certain kinds of pain
  • benzodiazepines, which can be prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorders
  • stimulants, which can be prescribed to treat attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Problematic use of these medications can cause serious health effects, including substance use disorder (addiction), overdose and even death.

These risks increase when medications are:

  • taken at higher doses
  • taken in a different way or for different reasons than they were prescribed
  • used with alcohol or other prescription, over-the-counter or illegal drugs

Problematic prescription drug use in teenagers

A 2014/15 study of Canadian students in grades 7 to 12 found that psychoactive pharmaceuticals were the third most commonly used substance (4%). The frequency of their use to get high is tied with synthetic cannabinoids, following only cannabis (17%), and alcohol (40%).

Psychoactive drugs affect a person's:

  • mood
  • behaviour
  • perception (how you experience your surroundings)

The 2014/15 study asked students in grades 7 to 12 how difficult they felt it would be to get prescription medicine if they wanted it. Approximately 786,000 students (37%) thought it would be 'fairly easy' or 'very easy' to obtain prescription pain relievers.

Why do teenagers engage in problematic prescription drug use?

Teenagers may choose prescription drugs over illegal drugs for the following reasons:

  • They may think that getting prescription drugs is easier than getting illegal drugs.
    • The problematic use of prescription drugs by youth often involves getting these drugs from a friend, a relative or from home.
  • Because prescription drugs are legal and are prescribed by a doctor, they may be seen as safer than illegal drugs.

Teenagers often don't understand that prescription drugs can also lead to overdose and other health concerns.

Help prevent problematic prescription drug use

To help prevent problematic prescription drug use, you should:

  • keep track of your prescription drugs by counting the pills in each package
  • keep medication in a safe and secure place, such as a locked box or cabinet
  • return any unused or expired medications to your pharmacy or to a take-back program
  • keep track of your refills at the pharmacy and make sure there are none that you didn't fill yourself
  • avoid sharing your medication with family or friends, even if they have been prescribed the same drug before

Help for substance use disorder (addiction)

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder (addiction), help is available.

For more information

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