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NIH Podcast on Prescription Drug Abuse in Women


Prescription drug abuse means taking a prescription medication that is not prescribed for you, or taking it for reasons or in dosages other than as prescribed. Abuse of prescription drugs can produce serious health effects, including addiction. In 2008, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 15.2 million Americans age 12 and older had taken a prescription pain reliever, tranquilizer, stimulant, or sedative for nonmedical purposes at least once in the year prior to being surveyed.

The NIH’s Office of Research on Women’s Health podcast, “Pinn Point on Women’s Health,” provides updates on women’s health research, and is hosted by Vivian W. Pinn, M.D., director of NIH’s Office of Research on Women’s Health. This month, Dr. Pinn interviewed Nora Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Dr. Volkow stated that it is important to understand the sex and gender-based differences regarding drug abuse in order to better target prevention and treatment approaches.

“In general, males tend to take more drugs than females. The exception is the period of time between 12 and 17 years of age. There, we see a higher rate of abuse of most drugs, including psychotherapeutics, among girls than among boys,” Dr. Volkow said.

Drugs of abuse also include pain medications that contain opiates, such as Vicodin or OxyContin, as well as stimulant medications, which are used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Dr. Volkow noted that adolescent girls have almost 60 to 70 percent higher rates of abuse of these substances than adolescent boys.

“Adolescents and young adults take stimulant medications to improve cognitive performance, to study for an exam, or to prepare for something that requires a deadline involving intense work,” Dr. Volkow said. In addition, girls take stimulants in order to lose weight. Stimulant medications are anorexigenic; meaning, they reduce feelings of hunger.

Not surprisingly, prescription drug abuse can result in addiction. Dr. Volkow has conducted imaging studies that show how repeated drug use affects the brain.

“Not only are there disruptions in the circuits involved in reward (the ability to feel pleasure), and learning; but also in frontal areas of the brain that are involved with executive control and that enable you to make decisions, to judge, to control your desires and your emotions,” Dr. Volkow said.

There exists a misguided belief that abuse of prescription drugs is less dangerous than that of illicit substances because they are prescribed by physicians. “When you take psychotherapeutics outside the surveillance of a physician, these medications can be as dangerous as illicit substances,” Dr. Volkow said. She noted the importance of educating both the public as well as the health care system about how these drugs work, under what conditions their use is beneficial and under what conditions their use can lead to adverse medical consequences.

Treatment for addiction will depend on the type of psychotherapeutic used. “For opiate analgesics, we have medications that look quite promising. We’re currently conducting a trial to investigate the use of buprenorphine in the treatment of addiction to opiate analgesics, and the results appear to be quite promising,” Dr. Volkow said.

There are also several evidence-based behavioral interventions that include motivation intervention strategies, incentive intervention strategies, and group therapy intervention strategies that have been shown to be effective. For information on treatment options in your area, go to or call 1-800-662-HELP (1-800-662-4357).

To hear Dr. Pinn’s podcasts, visit the Office of Research on Women’s Health home page. (How to use podcasts)


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