The misuse of prescription medications, a practice deviating from a doctor’s intended use, has witnessed a concerning surge amid the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa.
While prescription medications serve legitimate medical purposes, distinguishing them from illicit drugs, some medications, including opioid painkillers, sedatives, stimulants, and psychotherapeutics, harbor the potential for abuse and can lead to addiction.
The decision to initially take prescription drugs is typically voluntary, aiming to treat a health condition or alleviate pain. However, these medications affect individuals differently, and over time, tolerance to the substance builds. This means that higher quantities are needed to achieve the same effects, ultimately resulting in dependency.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports a steady increase in the number of individuals over the age of 12 who have misused prescription drugs in South Africa. A concerning rise has been observed in emergency room visits due to overdoses, alongside an increasing number of individuals seeking assistance from addiction service centers.
Understanding Prescription Drug Addiction South African society, like many others, places a significant emphasis on the pursuit of success. This has cultivated a culture where individuals are willing to go to great lengths to overcome obstacles such as stress or pain, often opting for quick fixes to alleviate discomfort rather than seeking long-term, solutions-based approaches.
Unfortunately, this inclination exacerbates the perils of prescription medication misuse, as more people resort to drugs to manage their symptoms, even when they may not be necessary or the best course of treatment for their condition.
Every prescription drug carries the potential for misuse, but certain medications possess properties and effects that increase the likelihood and risk of misuse, as well as the severity of potential harm and long-term consequences.
Moreover, these medications not only pose a significant risk to the individuals for whom they were prescribed, but they can also easily find their way into the black market for sale alongside illicit substances.
In South Africa, the most frequently abused prescription medications encompass:
Opiates: Codeine, Hydrocodone, Morphine, and Fentanyl Insomnia/sleeping pills: Temazepam, Zopiclone, Ambien, and Restoril Anti-anxiety medication: Benzodiazepines and Pregabalin Stimulants: Ritalin and Adderall Opioids constitute the most commonly abused prescription medication category in South Africa. This family of prescription drugs poses one of the gravest risks, as tolerance to opioids develops rapidly. While they are often prescribed for short-term use post-surgery or to address acute pain, there is limited evidence of any benefit from long-term use. An opioid overdose can quickly turn fatal, as these drugs slow heart rate and respiration.
Benzodiazepines, including Xanax and Valium, are other frequently abused prescription drugs in South Africa. These highly addictive medications act as tranquilizers and are often prescribed for anxiety. The calm and relaxed state induced by these drugs can intensify dependency, particularly in environments where their use is normalized.
Ritalin, typically used to treat ADHD or ADD, is another commonly misused medication. Given its stimulant properties, Ritalin can enhance focus and concentration, enabling students and professionals to stay awake longer to meet deadlines or complete projects.
Symptoms Prescription medication addiction is a complex condition with far-reaching adverse effects on individuals, their families, and friends. Addiction can lead to challenges both at home and in the workplace, fostering feelings of shame, isolation, and helplessness.
When prescribing these drugs, doctors consider each patient’s unique and complex needs. Consequently, the chosen medications, their dosages, and their effects vary significantly from person to person.
Symptoms of prescription drug abuse encompass physical, behavioral, and psychological changes, contingent on the specific drug. Nonetheless, all addictions inevitably affect an individual’s health, well-being, and daily life.
Common symptoms of prescription medication addiction include:
- Changes in appetite
- Insomnia or excessive sleep
- Weight loss
- Impaired coordination
- Reduced concentration
- Digestive issues such as constipation or nausea
- Altered heart rate
- Altered breathing rate
- High blood pressure
- Secretive behavior
- Frequent work absences
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Diminished social interactions
- Neglect of self-care
- Engaging in risky behavior
- Mood swings
- Changes in personality
Risk Factors While anyone can develop a substance abuse disorder at any stage of life, certain situations, environments, and conditions can heighten the risk of addiction, including:
- Past or present addictions, including nicotine and alcohol
- Pre-existing mental health issues
- Family history of substance misuse
- Peer pressure or a work/social environment that involves substance use
- Easy access to prescription medications at home or the workplace
- Lack of awareness about prescription medications and their adverse effects
- Exposure to traumatic events or periods of abrupt and intense change
The Effects of COVID-19 Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed substantial hardships across South Africa. The nation has grappled with increased isolation, economic downturns, and significant loss of life.
Numerous reports and studies have underscored the toll this crisis has taken on the physical and mental health of South Africans. Working from home and experiencing separation from loved ones have resulted in:
- Reduced physical activity
- Undesired changes in weight
- Increased alcohol consumption
- Escalation of domestic abuse
- A surge in mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, chronic stress, and addiction
Parents and essential workers have borne a disproportionate share of physical and psychological challenges due to pandemic-related stressors. Parents, in particular, have faced substantial difficulties as they balanced work-from-home responsibilities with family life, homeschooling, lockdown measures, social restrictions, and economic hardships.
The stress and uncertainty brought about by the pandemic have driven many adults to seek solace and relief through substances, sometimes even combining prescription medications with alcohol. This dangerous mix can have potentially lethal consequences, as many of these substances act as depressants, reducing heart rate and respiratory function, which can lead to coma or death.
Additionally, the pandemic has witnessed a surge in illicit prescription medications circulating on the black market, particularly among teenagers and young adults. Illicit opioids and benzodiazepines have made their way across the country, with toxicology reports linking these substances to numerous hospitalizations and fatalities.
Illicit drugs from the black market often contain varying substances and strengths, heightening the risk of overdose. In the past year, benzodiazepines were identified on the death certificates of 476 individuals in South Africa, representing a 55% increase over a decade.
Conclusion Addiction is a chronic and progressive illness; nevertheless, full recovery is attainable. If you, a coworker, family member, or friend grapples with prescription medication addiction in South Africa, it is imperative to seek help promptly.
The most effective mental and behavioral health treatment revolves around individualized recovery programs tailored to meet each person’s specific needs.