Frequently Asked Questions about Adolescent Drug Use, Part 3
5. Is abuse of prescription medications as dangerous as other forms of illegal drug use?
Psychoactive prescription drugs, which include opioid pain relievers, stimulants prescribed for ADHD, and central nervous system depressants prescribed to treat anxiety or sleep disorders, are all effective and safe when taken as prescribed by a doctor for the conditions they are intended to treat. However, they are frequently abused— that is, taken in other ways, in other quantities, or by people for whom they weren’t prescribed— and this can have devastating consequences.
In the case of opioid pain relievers such as Vicodin® or OxyContin®, there is a great risk of addiction and death from overdose associated with such abuse. Especially when pills are crushed and injected or snorted, these medications affect the brain and body very much like heroin, including euphoric effects and a hazardous suppression of breathing (the reason for death in cases of fatal opioid overdose).
In fact, some young people who develop prescription opioid addictions shift to heroin because it may be cheaper to obtain. ADHD medications such as Adderall® (which contains the stimulant amphetamine) are increasingly popular among young people who take them believing it will improve their school performance. This too is a dangerous trend. Prescription stimulants act in the brain similarly to cocaine or illegal amphetamines, raising heart rate and blood pressure, as well as producing an addictive euphoria.
Other than promoting wakefulness, it is unclear that such medications actually provide much or any cognitive benefit, however, beyond the benefits they provide when taken as prescribed to those with ADHD.
6. Are steroids addictive and can steroid abuse be treated?
Some adolescents—mostly male—abuse anabolic-androgenic steroids in order to improve their athletic performance and/or improve their appearance by helping build muscles. Steroid abuse may lead to serious, even irreversible, health problems including kidney impairment, liver damage, and cardiovascular problems that raise the risk of stroke and heart attack (even in young people). An undetermined percentage of steroid abusers may also become addicted to the drugs—that is, continuing to use them despite physical problems and negative effects on social relations—but the mechanisms causing this addiction are more complex than those for other drugs of abuse.
Steroids are not generally considered intoxicating, but animal studies have shown that chronic steroid use alters the same dopamine reward pathways in the brain that are affected by other substances. Other factors such as underlying body image problems also contribute to steroid abuse.
Moreover, when people stop using steroids, they can experience withdrawal symptoms such as hormonal changes that produce fatigue, loss of muscle mass and sex drive, and other unpleasant physical changes. One of the more dangerous withdrawal symptoms is depression, which has led to suicide in some people discontinuing steroids. Steroid abuse is also frequently complicated by abuse of other substances taken either as part of a performance-enhancing regimen (such as stimulants) or to help manage pain-, sleep-, or mood-related side effects (such as opioids, cannabis, and alcohol).
Because of this complicated mix of issues, treatment for steroid abuse necessarily involves addressing all related mental and physical health issues and substance use disorders simultaneously. This may involve behavioral treatments as well as medications to help normalize the hormonal system and treat any depression or pain issues that may be present. If symptoms are severe or prolonged, hospitalization may be needed.