How Risky Are Prescription Drugs?

Painkiller addiction hit the news pretty hard this year, shocking the nation with triple digit statistics about the prescription drug epidemic. If you're someone who has just been prescribed pills from your doctor, you might be wondering what your chances are of getting addicted to them. So how risky are prescription drugs? 

Data: How Addictive are Prescription Drugs

Most drugs are addictive–to some degree. Some are more addictive and others less. Drugs in America are classified into Schedules from 1 to 5, based on how addictive the drug is. For example, drugs in Schedule I are so addictive, they are not allowed to be used for any medicinal purposes. 

But the data on just how addictive painkillers and prescription drugs are tends to be confusing with studies citing vast differences, ranging from 1% to 40%. (WebMD estimates that the percentage is roughly between 3 and 16 percent.)

Although the inherent addictive nature of a drug exists, it's not entirely the pill that creates an addiction. Addiction, like any other disease, is the result of a number of physiological, psychological and social factors.

Demographics: Who is at a higher risk for addiction?

Those at a higher risk for addiction include those with

  • a family history of substance abuse.
  • a personal history of substance abuse.
  • a lower tolerance for resistance. (Some people will experience more of a high than others, which could increase the risk for addiction.)

Because 70% of those who abuse prescription drugs obtain them from family or friends, prescription drug addiction happens first to those who choose it. By the time someone asks the doctor for pills, they’re already addicted. Statistically-speaking, your chances of becoming addicted to prescription drugs are much lower if you enter the hospital first with no intentions of abusing the medications.

You should always compare the risk of addiction with the benefits of pain relief. Untreated pain will significantly lower your quality of life and may lead to further health complications.

Drug Cocktails: A more likely cause to worry

With the average patient, the danger of taking addictive pills with alcohol or other drugs (knowingly or unknowingly) increases the risk of becoming addicted to them. 

For example, taking painkillers and sedatives together creates dangerous adverse effects. Combining depressant drugs, like Xanax or Valium, with alcohol could result in coma and death. These kind of serious side effects can be avoided simply by adhering carefully to your doctor's instructions. Learn more about dangerous drug and alcohol combinations. 

Location: Prescription Abuse in California

Less than 4% of people enter treatment in northern California for prescription drugs, far lower than more typical street drugs;

  • 34% of treatment admissions were for methamphetamine
  • 20% of treatment admissions were for alcohol
  • 19% of treatment admissions were for marijuana
  • 12% of treatment admissions were for heroin
  • 11% of treatment admission were for cocaine, and
  • 4% of treatment admissions were for other drugs (including various illicit drugs and prescription drugs)
  • Less than 4% of people enter treatment for prescription drugs.

Although this might mean that many people are responsibly using their meds, it might also mean that many people are actually not getting the treatment they need.

Truth: Addiction may not be imminent, but it’s real

For people who develop an addiction to their prescription meds, addiction is devastating. Nobody should ever underestimate the powerful hold of addiction or the havoc it could wreck. Although the risk may seem low compared to other drugs, the use of prescription drugs is rising–which means, we will probably see more people addicted to prescription drugs. Addiction is real–and it happens.

Your Doctor: A Good Guy

Remember your doctor is not trying to get you addicted, and your doctor is extremely careful not to over-prescribe powerful opioids. Having a trusting relationship with a knowledgeable doctor is key. And expert won’t have unfounded worries about the risk for addiction, but will also know how to help those at high risk for developing a problem.

If you have a past history of substance abuse, your doctor may not feel comfortable prescribing a powerful drug for you; in that case, seeking a doctor with expertise in pain management or a specialty center is especially important. You may also be able to get an accountability partner who will hold and dispense your medication for you. It’s not hopeless to achieve good health; you just have to be willing to do it.

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