Prescription drug abuse a continuing problem for older Aussies

prescription meds on a shelf in pharmacy

Modern medicine can rightly claim to have saved millions of lives over the past century, but the dark side of that progress is the abuse of prescription and over-the-counter drugs that only seems to be escalating.

And forget the stereotypical image of the young junkie. Drug support and research organisation the Penington Institute has released data in its Annual Overdose Report,      revealing that the over-50 age group accounts for 41.1 per cent of all overdose deaths, a figure tragically the result of the over-60s committing one-third of all drug-related suicides.

By comparison, the nearest age group for drug-related deaths is the 40-49 age group with 26.2 per cent.

In the report, Penington chief executive John Ryan said drug abuse affects Australians of all ages, in the country and the city.

“Although you’d be forgiven for thinking that illicit drugs are the main substances implicated in overdose, pharmaceutical drugs – opioids, benzodiazepines (sedative drugs), anti-depressants and anti-convulsants – are detected in most overdose deaths.”

Read: Common anti-inflammatory drugs linked to serious health concerns

US health information website WebMD and Australia’s Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) have outlined some of the more commonly abused prescription and over-the-counter drugs:


Fentanyl is an extremely strong opioid used for treating chronic or severe pain, nerve damage, injuries, major trauma and surgery. According to the ADF, it is about 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine. The ADF says there is no safe level of use and it always carries some risk.

Codeine and morphine
Some of the most commonly abused prescription medicines are painkillers. These drugs dull pain, but in large doses can cause a euphoric high – and dangerous side-effects. Doctors usually prescribe morphine for severe pain and codeine for milder pain.

Another opioid painkiller is oxycodone. It’s in drugs such as OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan, and Roxicodone. People who abuse oxycodone sometimes crush it and snort it or inject it –      greatly raising the risk of overdose.

Read: Drugs ‘wildly over-prescribed’ for dementia, study finds

Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet
These drugs contain the opioid hydrocodone plus acetaminophen. They can cause drowsiness and constipation and high doses can bring on dangerous breathing problems. If you feel sick, like you have the flu, after stopping any of these opioid medications, your body may have become dependent. Talk to your doctor if you feel you need these medications for more than pain relief.

In Australia, opioids continue to be the largest overall drug group identified in drug-induced deaths, according to the Penington report.

These are sedatives such as phenobarbital, pentobarbital (Nembutal), and secobarbital (Seconal) and they help with anxiety, sleep problems, and some seizures. However, they are addictive and high doses can cause trouble breathing, especially if used with alcohol.

Alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin) and diazepam (Valium) are      examples of benzodiazepines – another type of sedative that can help with anxiety, panic attacks, and sleep problems. They work well and they are safer than barbiturates. Once again, if they are overused, and even used as prescribed, they can lead to physical dependence and addiction. Stopping these medications abruptly can be dangerous. If you feel you depend on these medications, talk to your doctor.

According to the Penington report, benzodiazepines remain the second-most common group of drugs identified in unintentional drug-induced deaths. There were 582 deaths involving benzodiazepines in 2019, accounting for 35.4 per cent of all unintentional drug-induced deaths – more than double the 16.8 per cent figure in 2001.

Sleep medicines
Drugs such as zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta), and zaleplon (Sonata) can help with sleeping but if you use them longer than your doctor suggests, you can become dependent.

Stimulants such as the amphetamines Adderall, Adderall XR, Dextroamphetamine and Mydasis can help people with ADHD, but some people use amphetamines to get high, to boost energy and alertness, or to keep their weight down and they are addictive. High doses can cause a dangerous rise in body temperature, irregular heartbeat, and even cardiac arrest.

This is a stimulant in ADHD drugs such as Concerta, Daytrana, Metadate, Methylin and Ritalin. If you take stimulants, combining them with common decongestants can cause dangerously high blood pressure or an irregular heartbeat.

Read: Common medication linked to poor concentration, memory loss

Dextromethorphan (DXM)
It’s not just prescription drugs that can be a problem, Dextromethorphan is a common ingredient in over-the-counter cold and cough medicines, and large doses can get you high and cause hallucinations. It’s popular among teens, since cough syrup is so easy to find in medicine cabinets. High doses also cause vomiting, rapid heart rate, and – rarely – brain damage.

This is a decongestant in lots of non-prescription cold medicines. While it helps clear up a stuffy nose, it’s also an ingredient in illegal methamphetamine (‘meth’). To curb meth abuse, US laws control how to buy pseudoephedrine products. Buying pseudoephedrine products in Australia varies state by state.

Have you had any concerns about over-prescribing drugs? Do we need more controls on these types of medicines? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Jan Fisher

Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.

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