8 most addictive legal drugs
Alcohol isn't as addictive as illegal drugs like heroin or crystal meth, but it's still highly dangerous. "Even though the drug itself isn't tremendously addictive, alcohol poses an enormous problem because so many people use it in a harmful way," says Dr. Andrew Kolodny, an addiction expert and chief medical officer of Phoenix House Foundation in New York City.
Regular binge drinking can easily give way to addiction. "Some people are addicted to alcohol right away, but for most people, it takes a while for the addiction to develop before they start going downhill," says Jane Maxwell, of the Addiction Research Institute at University of Texas at Austin.
If alcoholism runs in your family, you're automatically at greater risk. "Alcohol addiction is unique in that there's a strong genetic component," Kolodny says.
One of the most accessible legal drugs, nicotine is also the most addictive. "Most people who smoke just a few times will get hooked," says Kolodny. "Only a very few people are able to smoke occasionally without becoming addicted."
Whether you smoke cigarettes, cigars or chew tobacco, once you're addicted to nicotine, quitting can be exceedingly difficult. "It's harder to quit nicotine than alcohol," Maxwell says. "There continues to be such a strong urge to use."
However, unlike alcoholics who should go cold turkey, people trying to nix nicotine can turn to gum or patches to help ease them off the drug. "These keep level of nicotine in body while you get used to not smoking," says Maxwell. Still, most ex-smokers relapse. And even though many former smokers swear by the new smokeless e-cigarettes, these are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and it's unclear whether they too have long-term health ramifications.
Opioid painkillers such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet and morphine have quickly created a health catastrophe in America. Prescriptions for these highly addictive pain relievers have skyrocketed since the early 2000s. More than 40 people die every day from overdosing on them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kolodny says opioids are very effective for treating short-term, acute pain. "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.
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.
Benzodiazepines, or benzos, including Xanax, Klonopin and Valium, are also massively overprescribed, says Kolodny. They're used to treat severe anxiety and panic attacks, but too many people take them unnecessarily. And too many enjoy – and become addicted to – their effects. "Benzos are sedating," Kolodny says. "It can be similar to being intoxicated on alcohol. But it affects performance and function and can interfere with your career and relationships." And just like opioids, the body continually craves more. "People too often use benzos in uncontrolled manner and start taking higher and higher doses," he says.
Kolodny says physical dependence on benzos is especially severe – even deadly. "While the withdrawal effects from opioids are not life threatening, you can die when you stop taking benzos," he says. "It's similar to withdrawals from booze. People get delirium tremors and can wind up having a seizure or heart attack."
Use of stimulant drugs intended to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder has also soared in the past decade. "These drugs are a serious problem, particularly in high schools and universities, because kids think they help them study better," says Gen. Arthur Dean, chairman and CEO of Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. "Then, when these overachievers leave college and become high-level young professionals, they carry those behaviors into the workforce."
These stimulants are highly habit-forming and have several serious side effects. "They can cause hallucinations and raise heart rate too quickly," says Dean. And the longer you're on them, the more problems they can cause. "Taking high doses for a long time can have serious psychological side effects like paranoia, obsessiveness, insomnia and skin picking," says Kolodny.
Ambien is a highly effective medication to help people sleep. But it's very easy to become dependent, so using it beyond a few days is asking for trouble. "Once you start taking Ambien regularly, it's almost impossible to fall asleep without it," he says. "If you take it for weeks, months or years, you might have terrible insomnia that lasts for weeks."
Kolody says Ambien can also make you more anxious during the daytime and, worse, do crazy things when you think you're asleep. "It makes you hungry and gives you amnesia," he says. "So you might raid the fridge in the middle of the night, make a huge mess, and then in the morning think, 'Who the hell raided my fridge?' It's dangerous to have those blackouts." There have also been several reports of Ambien users hopping in their cars the middle of the night, getting in wrecks, and waking up in the emergency room with no recollection of what happened.
Prescription cough syrup
If your doctor puts you on a potent prescription cough syrup for bronchitis, sinusitis or hay fever, be careful with it. "The 'good stuff' has codeine, an opiate, which you can get hooked on," Maxwell says. It can also be lethal when used in excessive amounts. This is the drug that landed Lil Wayne in the hospital last year and what the police just found at Bieber's place.
Make sure you take only the recommended doses to avoid becoming dependent. Also, never drink booze while taking prescription cough syrup. Along with codeine, it contains a strong antihistamine called promethazine and the antihistamine-codeine-alcohol trifecta can cause you to stop breathing.
Anabolic steroids, which are synthetic variations of testosterone, are legally prescribed to treat side effects of low testosterone and to help build muscle mass in men battling serious diseases like cancer and AIDS. But they are often used and abused by otherwise healthy guys who just want to bulk up. And yes, they're addictive. Steroids won't get you high, but they still mess with brain chemicals. Using them continually can cause severe mood swings, irritability, paranoia, and aggression. Even worse, they damage the kidneys, liver, and heart.
Even if you'd never dream of taking 'roids, you can still come across this junk in steroid-spiked products masquerading as dietary supplements. Beware of any muscle-building "supplements" being peddled online or in the locker room.