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Article Summary

The Health Effects of Prescription Drug Use

The health risks associated with prescription drug abuse vary depending on the drug. For example, abuse of opioids, narcotics and pain relievers can slow or stop breathing. The abuse of depressants, including benzodiazepines and other tranquilizers, barbiturates and other sedatives, can result in seizure, respiratory depression and decreased heart rate. Stimulant abuse can lead to high body temperature, irregular heart rate, cardiovascular system failure and seizure. Inappropriate use of prescription drugs, including use without a prescription or medical supervision, or using in a manner other than exactly as prescribed, can lead to addiction in some cases.The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) receives reports of emergency department (ED) episodes involving the non-medical use of legal drugs. These can involve the deliberate abuse of prescribed or legally obtained over-the-counter (OTC) medications or of pharmaceuticals diverted for abuse. Accidental overdoses or adverse reactions to OTC or prescription drugs taken as directed are not reportable to DAWN unless they are present in combination with an illicit drug. During 2005, there were an estimated 598,542 ED visits that involved non-medical use of prescription or OTC pharmaceuticals or dietary supplements. CNS agents were involved in an estimated 305,973 ED visits and psychotherapeutic agents were involved in an estimated 275,430 visits.

Number of ED Drug Mentions, Non-Medical Use of Selected Psychotherapeutics, 2005



Psychotherapeutic agents






    Antiolytics, sedatives, and hypnotics


    CNS stimulants


CNS agents




Respiratory agents


Cardiovascular agents


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