Prescription Drugs

What is prescription drug misuse?

Non-medical prescription drug use OR prescription drug misuse is the use of over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription drugs for anything other than the drug's intended purpose, by someone other than the intended recipient, and/or in a dosage other than prescribed.

Prescription drugs have contributed to major advances in public health. However, prescription drugs are the second most frequently misused category of drugs, behind marijuana and ahead of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and other drugs. 

Most commonly misused prescription drugs by college students

Opioids/pain relievers - used to relieve pain (e.g. Vicodin, OxyContin, or codeine).

  • Opioids are medications that act on opioid receptors in both the spinal cord and brain to reduce the intensity of pain-signal perception.
  • They also affect brain areas that control emotion, which can further diminish the effects of painful stimuli. Importantly, in addition to relieving pain, opioids also activate reward regions in the brain causing the euphoria—or high—that underlies the potential for misuse and substance use disorder.

CNS depressants - used to relieve anxiety or help a person sleep (e.g. Valium or Xanax).

  • CNS depressants, a category that includes tranquilizers, sedatives, and hypnotics, are substances that can slow brain activity. This property makes them useful for treating anxiety and sleep disorders.
  • Most CNS depressants act on the brain by increasing activity at receptors for the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Although the different classes of CNS depressants work in unique ways, it is through their ability to increase GABA signaling—thereby increasing inhibition of brain activity—that they produce a drowsy or calming effect that is medically beneficial to those suffering from anxiety or sleep disorders.

Stimulants - used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and often referred to as "study drugs" (e.g. Adderall, Ritalin, or Concerta).

  • Stimulants increase alertness, attention, and energy, as well as elevate blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. Historically, stimulants were used to treat asthma and other respiratory problems, obesity, neurological disorders, and a variety of other ailments.
  • But as their potential for misuse and addiction became apparent, the number of conditions treated with stimulants has decreased. Now, stimulants are prescribed for the treatment of only a few health conditions, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), narcolepsy, and occasionally treatment-resistant depression.
  • Stimulants, such as dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine®, Adderall®) and methylphenidate (Ritalin®, Concerta®), act in the brain on the family of monoamine neurotransmitter systems, which include norepinephrine and dopamine. Stimulants enhance the effects of these chemicals. An increase in dopamine signaling from nonmedical use of stimulants can induce a feeling of euphoria, and these medications’ effects on norepinephrine increase blood pressure and heart rate, constrict blood vessels, increase blood glucose, and open up breathing passages.

Why do students misuse prescription drugs?

Students misuse prescription drugs for a variety of reasons, including to increase concentration, study, lose weight, party, relax, and relieve symptoms of health and mental health issues.

However, a large majority of Binghamton University students do not misuse prescription drugs, and studies indicate that students who do not misuse prescription drugs are more successful academically.

How is misusing prescription drugs harmful?

Prescription drugs are often strong medications, which is why they require a prescription. Doctors carefully consider potential benefits and risks before prescribing medications. Misusing prescription drugs can have serious medical consequences and cause the following side-effects:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Restlessness, nervousness
  • Impaired judgement
  • Anxiety
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Impotence or changes in sex drive
  • Mood changes
  • Overdose
  • Addiction
  • Death

It is illegal to use prescription drugs without a valid prescription or to distribute them. Penalties for misuse or illegal distribution of prescription drugs vary depending upon the drug type. Binghamton University and local law enforcement treat illegal use of prescription drugs as they do other illegal substances.

Safe alternatives to prescription drug misuse

There are safer and healthier alternatives to the misuse of prescription or OTC medication that can benefit someone in the long run. Find on-campus resources that can help below:

Ways to protect prescriptions

Most students who use prescription drugs have them prescribed and monitored by a healthcare provider and gain benefit from their use. They may be approached, however, by other students, friends, or family members who ask to buy or use their medicines. Try the following to protect your prescriptions:

  • Bring expired or unused medication to the Medication Drop Box inside the entryway of the University Police Department.
  • Set a reminder on your cell phone for your daily dose and for refills.
  • Avoid carrying your entire pill bottle or monthly supply in your backpack or purse.
  • Keep your medicines in a safe, private space where only you know the location or where it is locked.

What to say if someone asks for your medication

  • "I'm almost out."
  • "I don't take that anymore."
  • "I'm worried you'll react badly."
  • "I only have enough pills for me."