Many of the most addictive drugs aren't illegal. They're doled out by pharmacists, sold over-the-counter, or readily available at gas stations. Although these drugs are perfectly legal – and can be beneficial – they have dangerous consequences when misused. And because they are so addictive, they're often abused.
Opioid painkillers such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, and morphine have quickly created a health catastrophe in America. Prescriptions for these highly addictive pain relievers, which are basically low-dose heroin, have skyrocketed since the early 2000s. As a result, more than 40 people die every day from overdosing on them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Opioids work by binding to the receptors in the brain and rest of the body, which helps to ease pain. Kolodny says they're very effective for treating short-term, acute pain, such as if you've broken several bones in a car accident. "When you first use opioids, you get a euphoric effect," he says. "But you have to quit taking them after a few days."
If you don't stop, the body quickly gets used to opioids and craves increasingly higher doses to get the same effect. Before you know it, you have to take them to avoid getting physically ill, making them insanely hard to quit. "Besides flulike symptoms, one of the most disturbing effects of withdrawal is severe anxiety," Kolodny says. "People feel impending doom, like they're going out of their mind and might die."
If you want something to ease chronic aches, do not ask your doctor to prescribe an opioid, says Kolodny. "Ibuprofen, Tylenol, and naproxen are all very effective pain meds with no addiction risk," he says.
Credit: Jon Larson / Getty Images