4 Dangerous Classes of Prescription Drugs

A wooden spoon full of different prescription drugs

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Doctors prescribe drugs to help heal their patients. Although, in some cases, these medications may be over-prescribed or used inappropriately—such as combining them with alcohol or other drugs, using dosages higher than prescribed, or not getting dosages adjusted after changes in weight or tolerance.

This article details four of the most dangerous classes of prescription drugs in terms of their side effects and the potential for misuse, addiction, and even death. More than half of overdose deaths annually are from prescription drugs, whether the drugs were prescribed to the person who overdosed or prescribed to someone else.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

1

Opioids

The number of adults in the U.S. who experience non-cancer pain rose about 9% from 1998 to 2014, but the number of people taking opioid painkillers to deal with their pain doubled during that same period of time.

Additionally, the rate of people who have died from an overdose of prescription painkillers like oxycodone (such as OxyContin), hydrocodone (such as Vicodin), and fentanyl has increased massively over the past decade. In 2020, over 16,400 Americans died from this category of drug.

In addition to being prescribed for pain, this class of medication also includes drugs like methadone, which is most often used in medication-assisted treatment (MAT) of opioid addiction. Although it is safer than opioids heroin, it is still possible to overdose.

As with other opioids, methadone is most risky when combined with other drugs, when different amounts are taken (such as reducing intake, then going back to a previously safe dose, which is dangerous because tolerance goes down), or after significant weight loss.

2

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are a group of tranquilizer drugs prescribed for a variety of conditions—anxiety and insomnia, in particular. These drugs include commonly known medications such as alprazolam (Xanax), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan), as well as clonazepam (Klonopin), oxazepam (Serax), and temazepam (Restoril).

For those who take benzodiazepines for more than a very short time, dependence is possible. Even at therapeutic doses, withdrawal is possible once the medication is stopped, resulting in symptoms like agitation, fever, rapid breathing, excessive tear secretion, and hyperactive delirium.

Since January 2018, benzodiazepine prescription rates have decreased, dropping for men, women, and individuals aged 65 and older.

3

Stimulants

Stimulant medications such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine) are generally effective for treating attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with mild effects.

However, they are also commonly "diverted" or illicitly sold to people to whom they were not prescribed or taken in larger quantities than prescribed for pleasure or increasing alertness.

Stimulant medications are commonly used by college students for these reasons. In a 2021 study of 45 students enrolled in nursing school, every person prescribed a stimulant medication for ADHD reported that someone else had asked for their medication. Another 11.1% admitted to taking this type of medicine without a prescription.

From 2000 to 2014, U.S. poison centers reported 156,365 exposures to ADHD stimulant medications, with 76% occurring in children 12 and over. Children aged 13 to 19 were most likely to be exposed to this medication intentionally, either through misuse, abuse, or suspected suicide.

While small, an association between the use of stimulants and rare sudden unexplained death among children and adolescents has also been found.

4

Anabolic Steroids

Anabolic androgenic steroids are prescription drugs, although they are often taken for non-medical reasons—particularly by people who want to increase their muscle mass or boost athletic performance, such as bodybuilders and athletes fall into this category.

Several studies have indicated dangers associated with the use of steroids. One noted a connection between high doses of these drugs and cardiovascular disease. There is also an association between elevated aggression and violence in some people who use anabolic steroids, sometimes leading to the commission of a violent crime.

A Word From Verywell

All prescription medications have their time and place, but they don't come without risks and some are riskier than others. Always discuss the risks associated with the medications you are prescribed with a healthcare provider and learn how to take the medication safely. Be sure to share any personal or family history of substance use disorders with the prescribing physician, particularly when dealing with medications that present a high risk of dependence.

If you are concerned about the risks associated with a medication you've been prescribed, don't hesitate to share those concerns or ask about alternatives. In some cases, a less risky medication may be available. In others, treatment without medication, such as psychological or behavioral approaches, may be an option. If the medication is still the best treatment option for you, follow the prescribing physician's dosage instructions, continue your care, and do not stop or adjust your dosage without consulting with a healthcare provider first.

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14 Sources
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