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Pharm Harm

Just say no—to the potential dangers of prescription drugs

By Benny Lopez

The nationwide debate over legalization includes claims of marijuana’s addictive potential and its detrimental effect




Just say no—to the potential dangers of prescription drugs

By Benny Lopez

The nationwide debate over legalization includes claims of marijuana’s addictive potential and its detrimental effects on users’ health. But the irony is near overwhelming when one considers the sheer number of legal prescription drugs that are scientifically known to be potentially addictive and dangerous. We looked at 10 commonly used pharmaceuticals that can get you hooked, harm your health and even—under certain conditions—kill you.



What it is: A chemical compound of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine that functions as a psychoactive stimulant.

What it’s used for: Commonly prescribed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy.

What you should know: Side effects include elevated blood pressure, restlessness, dizziness, constipation and impotence. Because it’s a powerful stimulant (like meth and cocaine), Adderall comes with high potential for abuse and addiction. In 2005, Canadian health officials suspended sales of Adderall, citing 20 international reports of sudden deaths connected with the drug since 1994.



What it is: A brand name for alprazolam, Xanax works by depressing, or inhibiting, the nervous system.
What it’s used for: To treat depression-related anxiety and related conditions such as panic disorder.

What you should know: The National Library of Medicine warns that confusion, cognitive impairment, hallucinations and seizures are potential neurological side effects of Xanax. It can cause psychological and physical dependence, particularly in users with a history of alcohol and/or drug abuse. Xanax withdrawal can cause extreme panic, including symptoms such as heart palpitations and severe mood swings. About 195,625 emergency visits attributed to Xanax and other prescription drugs were estimated in 2006.



What it is: A powerful synthetic opioid medication similar to opium-derived painkillers like morphine or codeine.

What it’s used for: Extended relief of moderate to severe pain.

What you should know: OxyContin’s packaging warns of its addictive potential. Withdrawal effects reportedly resemble those of heroin: severe flu-like symptoms, acute nausea and muscle and bone pain. OxyContin’s time-release formula was designed to deter abuse, but this mechanism can be defeated by snorting, crushing, chewing or injecting it. The resulting high has earned abused OxyContin the nickname “hillbilly heroin.” In 2006, 731,000 OxyContin users were estimated to be 12 years old or older.



What it is: A synthetic painkiller and fever reducer. Its exact mechanism of action is not known, but it relieves pain by elevating the pain threshold and reduces fever through its action on the heat-regulating center of the brain.

What it’s used for: Over-the-counter pain relief (various prescription pain relievers such as Percocet also include acetaminophen as an active agent) and fever reduction. Acetaminophen is a major ingredient in many “Influenza” flu remedies.

What you should know: While generally safe for use at recommended doses, acute liver damage. The risk is heightened by Acetaminophen toxicity is the foremost cause of  acute liver failure in the  “Western world” Western world, and accounts for most drug overdoses in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. A 2009 study reported that out of 6,028 emergency room visits due to accidental medication overdoses, nearly 300 were related to acetaminophen.



What it is: A selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) that affects chemicals in the brain that may become unbalanced.

What it’s used for: Prescribed for depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, certain eating disorders and panic attacks in both adults and children.

What you should know: Thoughts of suicide may occur when a patient first starts taking an antidepressant like Prozac, especially in younger users (under age 25). Common side effects of Prozac include headaches, dizziness and nausea. The World Health Organization warned of Prozac’s addiction risk as long ago as 2001. At one point, a U.K. doctor estimated that 50,000 people have committed suicide on Prozac since it was introduced.



What it is: A brand name for sertraline hydrochloride: an SSRI and a dopamine reuptake inhibitor.

What it’s used for: Primarily used to treat  panic and social anxiety disorders. As of 2007, it was the most prescribed antidepressant in the U.S. retail market, with nearly 30 million prescriptions.

What you should know: As with other antidepressants, Zoloft may increase suicidal thoughts or behavior. There is a possibility of its causing  seizure disorder or a history of such a disorder) and unwanted weight loss. Patients who abruptly stop taking Zoloft may experience withdrawal symptoms including anxiety, agitation and headaches. Zoloft may not be safe to use during pregnancy and passes through breast milk.



What it is: A trade name for paroxetine, an SSRI.

What it’s used for: Prescribed for major depression, panic disorder, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and “Generalized anxiety disorder” generalized anxiety disorder in adults.

What you should know: Paxil may cause a plethora of side effects, from anxiety to constipation, increased urination to tingling of the skin. Rarer but more severe side effects include fainting, fever, restlessness, severe anxiety and suicidal thoughts or attempts. Fast or irregular heartbeat, memory loss, panic attacks and aggressiveness have also been reported. Patients taking Paxil seem to be more prone to suicidal behavior, according to a 2006 FDA warning. Out of 3,455 taking the drug, 11 reported suicidal behavior, according to one analysis.



What it is: A mixture of hydrocodone (a semi-synthetic opioid which binds to the pain receptors in the brain to reduce the sensation of pain) and paracetemol (also called acetaminophen, a pain killer and fever reducer – see above).

What it’s used for: Prescribed for the relief of moderate to severe pain.

What you should know: Vicodin is classified as a Schedule III controlled substance in the U.S., indicating that it has the potential to cause physical or psychological dependence if misused or abused. A study conducted in 2000 at an addiction unit found that 53 percent of those admitted were dependent on it. Withdrawal from Vicodin addiction is intense, with symptoms including muscle and bone pain, diarrhea and vomiting.



What it is: A naturally-occurring opiate (most prevalent in the Iranian poppy) used in numerous many prescription medications such as painkillers and in several over-the-counter drugs, including Tylenol and Benelyn.

What it’s used for: Relief of mild to moderate pain, cough-suppression and symptomatic relief from diarrhea.

What you should know: Codeine may be habit-forming and, like other narcotic pain medicines, be dangerous or fatal when combined with alcohol. Symptoms of codeine addiction may include nausea, vomiting, sweating and anxiety. In 2009, the U.K.’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) announced a package of measures aimed at minimizing the risk of overuse and addiction from over-the-counter medicines containing codeine. The Centers for Disease Control reported 13,800 overdose deaths from painkillers (including codeine) between 1999 and 2006.



What it is: The brand name for the generic drug carisoprodol, a muscle relaxant that works by blocking pain sensations between the nerves and the brain.

What it’s used for: Prescribed for reducing certain types of pain and muscle tension.

What you should know: Soma has the potential for physical dependence with prolonged use. Withdrawal symptoms can include stomach pain, sleeplessness, headache, nausea or seizures. Soma can transfer from a pregnant user to her unborn fetus and also appears in the breast milk of some new mothers who take it. Florida state officials reported that deaths due to Soma increased 100 percent from 2003 to 2008.