Prescription pill abuse is a growing problem in the U.S.
It started in the 1990s, when doctors began prescribing opioids more frequently as a way to treat both chronic and short-term pain. Painkillers were thought to be safe and have little risk of addiction if taken properly, but they quickly became popular among illicit drug users.
To combat this problem, drug makers have developed “abuse-resistant” pills to make it harder for addicts to take powerful prescription drugs inappropriately.
The powerful new painkiller Zohydro has come under fire for hitting the market without an abuse-resistant formulation, but the company that makes the drug is now under pressure to release a new formulation as soon as possible.
These formulations work by rendering painkillers ineffective when people try to manipulate them to make the pills easier to abuse.
As a drug addict’s tolerance grows, it becomes more difficult to get a high from swallowing pills. So users will find other ways to get the drug into their system more quickly and in a way that packs a bigger punch, such as crushing and snorting or dissolving in liquid and then shooting up.
One way that drug companies deter abuse of their products is by making pills crush-resistant.
Francie Diep at Popular Science explains how this works. Most pills start out as a powder in their original form. The powder is then pressed into a solid pill that can be crushed (between two spoons, for example) back into its original form by an abuser, making the substance easy to snort.
But abuse-resistant pills are made differently. OxyContin, for example, makes its pills using the painkiller oxycodone along with a plastic-like polymer. The polymer is heated to a molten phase and then cooled in the shape of the tablets to form pills. At that point, the oxycodone is embedded into the solid pill. Because the pills have plasticity, users can’t crush them into a powder form.
These pills aren’t good for intravenous drug users either. If someone tries to dissolve the pill in liquid, it turns to a gel that can’t be injected.
Another way to combat abuse is through adding other pharmaceutical components to pills.
The National Institutes of Health explains this method. A drug like naloxone, which reverses the effects of opiates, can be added to pills to force a drug abuser into withdrawal if the pill is taken inappropriately. Because naloxone isn’t easily absorbed if taken orally, it wouldn’t affect people who take pills appropriately. But if a person dissolves a pill and injects it to get high, the naloxone will kick in and block the effects.
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