Before talking about how drugs work, it is important to classify and define what a drug is.
A drug can be many things to many people. For instance, in its simplest form, a drug can be any chemical or substance that enters our body and alters normal functioning. Whether man-made or naturally occurring, drugs come in limitless varieties and are commonplace in our society. Two of the most common classes of drugs are pharmaceutical drugs (medicine) and recreational drugs (alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, etc).
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Pharmaceutical drugs are commonly called medicines or medication and are taken specifically to cure an illness, disease or medical condition, as preventive therapy to ward off illness or to treat a preexisting disease.
Because some pharmaceutical medications are used for specific kinds of illnesses or conditions and may be harmful if taken without these conditions, many such drugs are restricted.
In order for many pharmaceutical drugs to be dispensed, they require a prescription from a medical professional. Medications that require prescriptions are called POM (prescription only medicines). Besides POM drugs, there are also OTC drugs (over the counter). OTC drugs are common drugs that are considered not that dangerous to the public to be used without a doctor’s consent. They include aspirin, medication to stop diarrhea, antibiotic sprays for cuts and cough and flu drugs to treat less severe illnesses. OTC drugs are available at most supermarkets and drug stores and at pharmacies.
Finally, there are drugs that are classified as BTC (behind the counter). In many cases, these drugs have the tendency to be abused, but are available to people in order for them to treat a condition or illness without having to see a doctor. BTC drugs are usually dispensed by a licensed pharmacist and include consultation on how best to use the drug and what to use the drug for. BTC drugs may include birth control pills and stronger medications that should only be used in specific instances.
In order for drugs to work, they must first enter the body. It should be noted that an individual drug can be administered in numerous ways. The main types on how a drug can be administered include:
Oral – Oral is perhaps the easiest way for a drug to enter the body. We simply swallow a pill or drink a spoonful of cough medicine.
Inhaled – Inhalation is also a method of drug delivery. For instance, asthma sufferers have an inhalant which is breathed in. If you have a stuffed nose, you inhale an agent to get rid of the discomfort. People smoke cigarettes to relax or marijuana to experience a high.
Injected – Many medications that come in liquid form are injected. Whether antibiotics, insulin or heroin. The injection of drugs is done by a needle that is inserted either into the muscle or a vein (the blood stream).
Rectal – There are many medications that can be administered rectally. Drugs that are administered rectally are sometimes referred to as suppositories.
Vaginal – Just as the anus is used to administer drugs, so can the vagina be used to administer drugs. Drugs that are administered through the vagina are also referred to as supposito0ries.
Since each medication is usually made for a specific illness or condition, each drug will work differently. It should also be noted that since every person is unique biologically, the same drug can in some cases affect each person differently.
For instance, aspirin is one of the most well known and widely used pharmaceutical drugs in the United States. It is mainly used to relieve pain. It is called an NSAID (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Inhibitor). NSAIDs work mainly by interfering with cyclooxygenase pathways. This is an enzyme that is responsible for synthesizing specific chemicals into your body. Since the aspirin substance interferes with this enzyme, it de-stimulates the creation of prostaglandins which cause inflammation and pain. The result is that an aspirin will reduce inflammation such as a bruise and kill some of the associated pain.
Recreational drugs are usually classified as drugs that have psychoactive properties. These drugs are commonly used for recreation or to enhance productivity at work, rather than for medical purposes (caffeine). While there are drugs that are used for both boosting productivity and recreational purposes (marijuana), these type of drugs are usually defined by the individual’s purpose of taking it.
Some of the more well known recreational drugs that are used in the United States include alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, marijuana and cocaine.
How most Recreational Drugs Work
Recreational drugs are usually psychoactive in nature, meaning that they bring about changes in consciousness and can alter moods, perceptions and behavior fairly easily. While most recreational drugs users take specific drugs for the positive effects they experience, some forms of recreational drugs are habit forming and are taken out of habit.
A habit forming recreational drug such as heroin can cause a person to have an uncontrollable urge to take it. These habits can cause extremely negative effects on a person’s health and lifestyle. It should be noted that many recreational drugs are legal, such as caffeine and tobacco and many are illegal, such as marijuana and cocaine.
However, even though some are legal and some are not does not make one safer over the other.
Psychoactive drugs primarily affect the central nervous system. This alters normal brain functions temporarily and can have an effect on perceptions, behavior and consciousness. Each drug affects the nervous system differently.
Psychoactive drugs generally work by interacting with brain receptors which are found on the surface of cells. These receptors can also be found in enzymes. Enzymes are chemicals that are used within our bodies to regulate the chemical reactions between substances in our cells.
It should be noted that each type of receptor or enzyme has a specific shape. This 3-D shape or structure makes it only available to attach with other specific structures (sort of like a lock and key).
For instance, in the psychoactive drug Nicotine – which is commonly found in tobacco, the nicotine substance attaches itself to the target receptor within the brain and mimics the naturally occurring substance. Since natural substances which were created to attach to target receptors can’t attach, because they are already taken by the drug substance, drugs such as nicotine are called antagonists and have the effect of reducing the action of an antagonist at the receptor site.
Factors that Can Affect How a Drug Works
Most drugs need to be taken in a specific manner in order to be effective. For instance, a drop of beer that contains the drug alcohol (ethanol), will have virtually no effect on an adult, however, if that person drank 50 glasses of beer, it is would be an overdose and could cause death.
Some factors that can have an effect on how drugs work are:
Dose – Dose is the amount or intensity of the active ingredient. As stated above, a drop of some drugs will have virtually no effect on an individual; however some drugs are so intense that even a drop can be fatal.
Time – Time is an important consideration when taking drugs. Some drugs require a relatively long time to exert an effect on the body or mind. For instance, when smoking a cigarette that contains nicotine, the individual will probably feel the desired effect of the drug within a few minutes. Some drugs can be instantaneous, while others can take hours for the desired effect to be active.
Route of Administration – The way a drug is administered can have an influence on how it affects the individuals. For instance, drinking alcohol (administered orally) usually allows for a steady affect on an individual.
However, if alcohol is injected directly into the blood stream, it would be an overdose, possibly resulting in death.