What is pharmaceutical misuse?

Pharmaceutical drugs such as medicine prescribed by a doctor provide many benefits including increasing our quality of life. Most people use these drugs appropriately, following the guidance provided by their medical practitioner or pharmacist. However, the misuse of pharmaceuticals – in particular opioids, including over-the-counter codeine, and benzodiazepines – is increasing.

Misusing pharmaceutical medications can include:

  • Taking more medication than prescribed or directed on the packet, either in one dose or over time
  • Taking medication in a different way to what’s recommended, such as injecting or snorting
  • Using medication without a prescription and ongoing medical supervision
  • Combining it with other drugs, including alcohol
  • Undertaking activities that medication affects, like driving, working or looking after children
  • Sharing prescription medication with friends, family or colleague

Download our pharmaceutical misuse factsheet below:

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Which medications can cause dependence?

Strong painkillers

Typically prescribed for both acute and chronic pain, strong painkillers can be effective for short periods of time, but have been proven to lose effectiveness quickly and can cause dependence. These medications can also be dangerous in increased doses or when combined with alcohol or other drugs.

Read more about:

Minor tranquilizers

For short periods of time, relaxant-type medication such as benzodiazepines prescribed for stress, anxiety or insomnia can be helpful in conjunction with other forms of therapy, but can be addictive. These medications can be dangerous in increased doses or when combined with alcohol or other drugs.

Read more about Benzodiazepines.

Who is at risk?

In 2013, the number of Australians who had misused pharmaceuticals increased to 11.4 per cent from 7.4 per cent. If you suffer from stress, anxiety, pain or insomnia and use pharmaceutical medication to treat your symptoms, you could be at risk of harm.

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Preventing and reducing harms

There are a number of steps we can take to reduce the harms of pharmaceutical misuse. To take action:

  • Talk to your health professional
  • Take medicines according to the instructions
  • Be aware of potential interactions
  • Store medicines properly and safely
  • Make sure the medicine is not damaged or too old
  • Regularly review your medicines with your health professional
  • Do not share medicines
  • Be aware of the effects on driving ability

For further information and support, contact our Drug Info line.

Prevention Research highlights best practice in preventing harm caused by alcohol and other drugs.

Download our ‘Pharmaceutical misuse: Alternative treatments’  factsheet below:

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Download our ‘Pharmaceutical misuse: What can be done?’  factsheet below: