Prescription Drug Basics

When used as prescribed or directed by a healthcare provider, prescription drugs can be very beneficial. However, the positive effects and safety of using prescription drugs are effectively canceled out when used inappropriately. Despite being developed via highly-regulated processes, prescription drugs can be very risky when used in a non-prescribed way.

Because college students are so frequently exposed to opportunities to experiment with and misuse so many different types of prescription drugs – from stimulants and pain relievers to anti-depressants and tranquilizers – it can be difficult to know when to be concerned. See below for the basics and be sure to check out our mixing page around mixing drugs with alcohol. 



Stimulants are prescribed to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or narcolepsy; these medications, which include Adderall, Concerta, and Ritalin speed up brain activity causing increased alertness, attention, and energy that comes with elevated blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing.

Symptoms of misuse or overdose: 

Hyperactivity, shaking, sweating, fast or irregular heartbeat, elevated body temperature, seizures, paranoia, repetitive behaviors, loss f appetite or unexplained weight loss



Sedatives/depressants are prescribed to treat anxiety, panic attacks, and sleep disorders; these medications (for example, Valium, Xanax, and Ambien) slow down or “depress” the functions of the brain and central nervous system.

Symptoms of misuse or overdose:

loss of coordination, respiratory depression, slurred speech, fatigue, slowed reflexes, coma



Opioid analgesics like Vicodin, OxyContin, Codeine, Fentanyl, and Percocet are prescribed to treat moderate-to-severe pain; these medications can block pain messages from reaching the brain; they can also give someone a feeling of euphoria. So why are opioids so concerning?

  • Opioids are powerful drugs that have a higher risk of causing dependency, often times before user might realize; this dependency can transition into addiction very quickly so it’s important to seek intervention early on. 
  • Opioid users can also develop tolerance in a very short timeframe (even within a few doses) – this means that they end up needing higher or more frequent doses to feel the same psychological effect. 
  • Research suggests that misuse of prescription opioids may serve as a gateway to illicit heroin use.

Symptoms of misuse or overdose:

Slow breathing, fading in and out of consciousness, pinpoint pupils, fatigue or "nodding," dry itchy skin, track marks, flu-like symptoms


Concerned about a friend?

If you suspect that a friend, roommate, or peer is abusing prescription drugs, help is available.


Overdose Resources