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Misuse of pharmaceuticals

Published 20 December 2005. Updated 1 June 2009.

Medicinal substances that affect the nervous system and emotions often have adverse effects in addition to the curing effect that they are used for. Especially problematic are sedatives and sleeping pills, like benzodiazepines and barbiturates. Adverse effects can also be caused by pain killers, like morphine derivatives, that affect the central nervous system, diet pills i.e. amphetamine-like substances, some cough mixtures that contain codeine and/or ephedrine, and certain medicines that affect the intestinal functions and contain opium. Simultaneous use of alcohol and barbiturates or alcohol and propoxyphene can even be fatal.

In order to prevent the misuse of these medicines their availability is controlled by doctors. In spite of this, studies reveal that the misuse of prescription medication is common. Some of the misusers do not use medicines according to the specifications of the prescription and may therefore risk their health, while others abuse prescription medication to become intoxicated.

It is hazardous to your health to for example take antibiotics “just in case”, not to finish your course of medication because the symptoms have been alleviated, and to overuse pain killers. The habitual use of sleeping pills and sedatives can also lead you to exceed the prescribed dosage as your addiction to them increases.

Pharmaceutical abuse refers to more or less conscious use of sedatives or other medicines in order to become intoxicated. Medicines (usually an overdose) are taken for example together with alcohol or other intoxicants. Medicines that are intended to be taken orally may be extracted and used intravenously. It is also commonplace to snuff pills that are intended to be melted under the tongue.

Pharmaceutical abuse is part of a difficult intoxicant problem that often includes also the use of alcohol. The cause of abuse of medicines or a pharmaceutical addiction may also be a drug problem. Especially those users of intoxicants who are addicted to opiates may seek to replace heroin and to alleviate withdrawal symptoms with medicines that contain opiates.

The risk of accidental death among pharmaceutical abusers is high. When the abuse is no longer under control, there is little the addict himself can do in order to break the circle. You can find professional help for problems with pharmaceuticals at youth centres, A-Clinics and some special clinics like the drug clinic at the Helsinki University Central Hospital.

Antti Holopainen
Medical superintendent,
Järvenpää Addiction Hospital