pill bottle with capsules

There are many reasons why someone may take a prescription medication. We know that these prescriptions are only safe when taken as directed by a medical professional for a specific health purpose, but for those who still choose to use outside of these conditions* there are some things to be aware of. Whether you’ve heard about the opioid crisis, are concerned about a friend or just want to know more about prescription use and safety, here are the basics.

*It is illegal to take a prescription medication that was not prescribed to you directly.

What is an opioid?

There’s a lot of coverage in the media right now on opioid use in our country. It’s important to know what opioids actually are, where they come from and what the risks of use include.

Opioids are drugs derived from opium, also called opiates. Opioids include semi-synthetic and synthetic opiates, which include illicit drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanyl. Opioids also include prescription pain medications, such as morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone and OxyContin.

Opioid overdoses can be fatal and difficult to predict. The best prevention is to avoid opioid use unless explicitly prescribed to you with specific instructions by a medical professional. However, if someone still chooses to use, noting the factors that can contribute to an overdose may help save a life.

Types of other prescription medications

Safety and risks with prescription medications depends on the type of medication in use. It’s good to be aware of the associated effects with each. 

  • Depressants are medications like Xanax and OxyContin, which can create feelings of sedation in users. They can also slow down or stop breathing.
  • Stimulants are medications like Adderall, which activate the body’s systems and increase heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. They can also create feelings of alertness.

Mixing any of these with other substances, including alcohol, can seriously increase the risk of negative effects and can be fatal in some cases. It is illegal to use prescription medications that were prescribed to someone else; doing so may also increase the risk of negative effects, as the actual contents of the medication are unknown.

To keep yourself, others and the environment safe, safely dispose of any unused prescription medications at the safe disposal box in the CU Police Department.

Risk factors for overdose

  • Quality. Substance potency varies substantially and may be cut with dangerous, high-potency opioids.
  • Mixing. Mixing opioids in particular with alcohol or other medications such as benzodiazepines can slow the respiratory system and stop breathing.
  • Tolerance. Tolerance decreases after periods without use including detoxification, hospitalization, or if a person resumes use after recovery.
  • Environment. Using in isolated environments decreases the likelihood of someone being able to help in an overdose situation.
  • Health problems. Underlying health problems, especially chronic lung diseases like emphysema or sleep apnea can slow the respiratory system—even when the user is not aware they may have these underlying health problems.

If you suspect overdose:

Call 911.

Emergency responders can provide immediate medical attention. If an opiate overdose is suspected, they can administer Naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects and save lives. Naloxone/Narcan is available to anyone at select pharmacies without a prescription from a doctor.

How to help a friend

For those interested in recovery and treating addiction, Counseling and Psychiatric Services (in C4C N352) provides counseling, referrals to community resources, and ongoing suboxone treatment, which provides medically assisted support to those with an opioid addiction.

The CU Collegiate Recovery Center, located in UMC 414, offers meetings and support groups, recovery-focused housing, events and activities, peer support and more for students in recovery or interested in pursuing recovering.

Health Promotion, located on the first floor of Wardenburg Health Center, offers a free training on exploring one’s relationship with substance use.

Click here for more information about alcohol and other drugs policies and resources at CU Boulder.