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DRUGS -Understanding them and Avoiding Abuse

People use drugs more today than ever before. Their use may often be justified; but sometimes it is not; and inappropriate use can lead to many and varied problems.

Drugs are biologically active chemicals; that is, they have an effect upon the body causing changes to the taker's physical or mental condition.  Often this is the aim, such as blocking pain signals from/to the brain following surgery or injury.

There are three main types of drugs:

  1. Over the Counter or Non Prescription Drugs
  2. Drugs Prescribed by a Doctor
  3. Illegal Drugs

Drugs from all three groups can, if taken wrongly, cause health problems.

Over The Counter and Prescription Drugs
Simply because a drug is legal does not mean it is safe under all conditions.  Medications come with dosing guidelines that must be followed to ensure your own safety.  Many prescription medications are available only by prescription because of serious side effects or the possibility of addiction with long term use or misuse.  Addiction to prescription drugs is an increasing problem.  Often people become addicted to pain medications after taking them to combat an injury.  Side effects can range from psychological disturbances to stomach, liver, heart and kidney injury.   

Tobacco and nicotine are legal and it is well known they are not safe.  Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances known, and it is a drug.  While a lot of the damage is done by the method of intake (smoking) the barrage of drugs and chemicals (many are known toxins and carcinogens) also have a number of serious side-effects.  There is absolutely nothing healthy about smoking and it generally does little to relieve stress aside from cause a feeling of relaxation, or a distraction for some people.  It damages the mouth, tongue, teeth, digestive tract, lungs, heart and also does superficial damage to the skin and nails of the fingers used to hold the cigarette/cigar.  Like alcohol it is generally the surroundings that are more effective in stress relief than the cigarette.  Getting out of the office for a 5 minute ‘smoke’ is in itself relaxing, without the cigarette.  Sitting around with friends having a chat is relaxing without the beer, nuts and cigars. 

 It is the fact that people condition themselves to associating the relaxation with the drug and not the other activities that assists in the development of addictions.

When over the counter and prescription medications are taken only occasionally, they are unlikely to cause problems.  When taken regularly, perhaps as a preventative measure (rather than as a cure for some problem), the likelihood of complications can increase significantly. Problems are not uncommon with overuse of the following non prescription drugs:

• Painkillers
 E.g. Aspirin or acetaminophen, codeine  taken for headaches

• Stimulants
 e.g.: Caffeine  taken to combat fatigue

• Antihistamines
taken to combat insomnia or allergies

• Decongestants
taken for a cold or blocked nose

• Laxatives
taken for constipation

• Antacids
taken for indigestion

There are of course other over the counter drugs which can be a problem, however these in particular should be watched as they are the most commonly taken.  Prolonged overuse, beyond that stated as safe on the product packaging can result in such things as digestive upsets, kidney problems, loss of appetite, constipation, headaches, moodiness, lack of concentration, nausea, etc. (depending on the actual drug being taken).  Aspirin is often prescribed in older patients (half a tablet a day) taking advantage of its blood thinning side effect.  However, in younger patients this is not a useful treatment as it can cause gastrointestinal injuries. 

Prescription drugs are often antibiotics and stronger pain medications.  Although most of us do not suffer personally because of it, the misuse of antibiotics is a serious health issue.  By not finishing a course of antibiotics, or by taking antibiotics when they are not indicated (patients often refuse to leave a doctor’s office without a prescription, however even if it makes you very unwell, a virus will not respond to antibiotics) you risk the bacteria or virus in your body becoming immune to the particular antibiotic.  This is called antibiotic resistance and if you pass the illness on to someone else, they will have less treatment options and may get quite ill waiting to see if different drugs work.  The rise of ‘superbugs’ is a direct result of antibiotic resistance. 

Strong pain medications may contain a variety of different drugs, all with different mechanisms of action.  All can be addictive, though the most serious care should be taken with opiate based medications.  These are rarely offered as a first step pain reliever, however, morphine and pethidine are available in hospitals and in prescription medications.  Many prescription anti-depressants are also addictive.  Every day people often become addicted to the habit of taking the pills, or to the ‘high’ or stimulatory effect they have.  In some cases, housewives, or stressed office workers becoming addicted to prescription medications as they use then to combat fatigue in order to get everything they need to done.  Many are fearful that their lives will fall apart if they do not take the drugs, as they live on only very short periods of sleep.

• Avoiding Aches and Pains
Stress is a major cause of headaches. Other contributing factors include stuffy rooms, strong odours (e.g.: scented perfumes, cleaning chemicals or fly spray, etc), dry or smoky environments, bright light, too much coffee or tea or over use of drugs.  Other vague aches and pains, generally in the back and neck are also often due to stress-related subconscious muscle tension.  Changing posture at regular intervals, standing up and stretching for a minute, taking a 5 minute break, exercising regularly can all help alleviate minor aches and pains and reduce the need for over the counter medications.

Where ‘pep’ pills and similar are taken, and become necessary to allow a person to complete their daily tasks, there are two options. 

Either, there is simply too much for one person to complete in a day and help is needed, or the methods employed could be made more efficient, so tasks take less time.  Drug dependence is serious, with serious long term health implications and must be professionally treated as soon as possible.

Illegal Substances

Depending on where you live, generally substances such as marijuana, cocaine, speed, ecstasy and other ‘party drugs’ and amphetamines are illegal.  This is for good reason.  Firstly, many are stimulants and while this will keep you partying longer, it can also lead to rapid heartbeat, altered consciousness, paranoia, severe dehydration and heatstroke, seizures heart attack and a variety of other conditions when used long term. While marijuana for example, may seem harmless, most heavy drug users started out smoking it and moved on to more dangerous drugs.  There is some evidence it causes permanent brain injury, and constant use can affect nutrition and lead to obesity.   Stimulants, when taken too often or in high dose can cause the brain to misfire, causing altered perception of pain, heat, cold etc, confusion, dizziness and poor co-ordination. 
A side effect is cardiac stimulation, elevating heart rate and blood pressure, which combined with psychological effects can cause a fight or flight effect, resulting in paranoia, aggression and hormone releases which further increase heart rate and blood pressure, in extreme cases leading to heart attack. 

A further complication of illegal drug abuse is the fact that you have no assurance of what is in the drug.  It could be manufactured in unsanitary conditions, with poor chemistry causing the formation of even more harmful by products.  Cheaper substances might be added, or poor calculation and preparation could result in the concentration being fatally high.  Dependence is common, and in some cases, anecdotal evidence suggests addiction can come after one dose.  Withdrawal symptoms are severe and require professional monitoring and rehabilitative care.  Long term psychological damage is often done.  There is an extremely high risk of contracting blood borne diseases such as HIV, Hepatitis and others from contaminated shared needles.


People suffering from persistent anxiety may find it beneficial to seek professional help from a psychotherapist, psychiatrist or psychologist.  Self-medication for mild anxiety is fine for the short term, but if symptoms persist then help is needed.  Most drugs only solve the problem temporarily, and with prolonged use can become addictive. 

Finding a substitute to achieve the feelings of exhilaration, social comfort and the like is a good option for people who are in the early stages of developing an addiction.  Exercise is good as it releases endorphins and gives a natural high.  For those who have social anxieties, professional assistance to overcome them is best.  Alcohol and drugs are never a solution to stress.  In general they will end up causing greater stress as your body comes to crave them and in many cases as you spend too much money on them.  Embarrassing outbursts while you are under the influence, criminal acts and violence, will in the light of day be a significant cause of increased stress.  Effective professional assistance will instead provide you with improved self-confidence, generally improved health and should not in itself cause you more stress.

Learn More about Managing Drugs from these Courses:

Stress Management   click for details

Psychopharmacology   click for details

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